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COTA accessibility task force expected to begin work this month

Thursday, January 6, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The county executive leading the push to improve disability access at Circuit of the Americas said he expects the proposed task force around that issue to begin its work later this month.

Bruce Elfant, Travis County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, said staffers at the racetrack and concert venue are ready to cooperate and convene the task force that Elfant called for at last month’s meeting of the Music Commission. The call came after a variety of accessibility problems arose during a November concert by the Rolling Stones that drew upward of 60,000 people and caused numerous traffic and logistical issues as well.

Elfant, who was using crutches, told the Music Commission there were unsuitable transportation options to travel the mile-plus distance from parking areas to his seats. He also said a tent dedicated to accessibility concerns was unstaffed, and that he saw other disabled patrons receiving poor service from staff charged with helping them.

In the weeks since, Elfant said his talks with COTA leaders were agreeable and that the makeup of the task force should include a variety of members from relevant groups.

“I’ve met with a bunch of the COTA staff, including their access people, and we’ve agreed we want to put together an access committee and we’re in the process of finding out what kinds of expertise we need on that committee,” he said. “By sometime in January I expect we’ll have this committee that will be outside people, some people from the city’s commission for people with disabilities … I’m sure the folks from ADAPT (of Texas) will want to be a part of it and we want to find some best practices.”

He said COTA officials chalked many of the problems up to poor performance by an outside vendor in charge of accessibility concerns.

Music commissioners said the COTA task force could create the framework to allow the city to bring attention to accessibility issues at all music venues and events.

Commissioner Oren Rosenthal, who has asked to serve on the COTA task force, said the volume and variety of events at COTA make it a good starting point for understanding problems such as parking, pathways and other factors that can create difficulties for those living with a disability.

“The needs at COTA are unique and they go beyond just music since it is much more than just a music venue,” he said. “I would love to see whatever lessons we learn from COTA applied to other groups, and we haven’t done much of a survey of different venues in terms of accessibility because that’s the kind of thing that unfortunately is often an afterthought.”

The attention on accessibility at COTA comes as some city leaders are considering creating an entertainment licensing system, primarily for bars and nightclubs caught up in the push to improve safety in the Sixth Street entertainment district.

Rosenthal said the work starting with the Music Commission could be taken up by the Austin Center for Events so accessibility concerns would be addressed in the planning process for events as well as venues.

“I love the idea of having a disability checklist that applies to any kind of event the city has, not just for music events, and I could see it applying to all of the events that make Austin great,” he said. “I just don’t want our small Music Commission to be the ones doing the heavy lifting for all of the city.”

Elfant, who previously served as a county constable and helped to enforce laws pertaining to disabled parking, said he agrees with the Music Commission’s push to address accessibility at music venues.

“I found when I was constable that the vast majority of businesses want to do the right thing, but don’t understand what is required under the (Americans with Disabilities Act), and the more subtle issues to them are huge issues to someone with a disability. Experts on issues around disabilities can help some of these businesses navigate, and it would be nice if there were a resource for venues in town where they could ask questions and get some help with what they need to do, and if there’s expensive things maybe there’s some funding out there to help them.”

Representatives from COTA were unavailable for comment for this story.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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