When COVID-19 first hit the state, like many Coloradans, Scott LaBarre, a 52-year-old attorney from Centennial, searched for as much information as he could find.
He wanted to track the number of COVID-19 cases and the slew of sweeping executive orders that brought big changes to public life in Colorado. But he said he quickly realized he couldn’t access the state’s digital information.
LaBarre lost his vision at age ten due to a childhood virus and describes himself as totally blind. He uses a screen reader, which takes text and converts it to synthetic speech, but the state websites weren’t compatible with the software.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act has required the state and other public entities to make websites accessible. Over the years it just hasn’t happened,” said LaBarre, who is president of Colorado’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
He and other advocates for people with disabilities say they’re grateful the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment responded relatively quickly last year to update the website and make it compatible, but LaBarre says that’s not the case across all of state and local government.
House Bill 1110, now under consideration at the Capitol, would set aside $330,000 over three years to help local governments comply with the ADA. It would require Colorado’s chief information officer to maintain accessibility standards for individuals with disabilities and explicitly make accessibility part of the planning process for digital infrastructure.
“We don’t want to be backed into a corner and forced to sue governments,” said Julie Reiskin, the Executive Director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which has advocated for the bill as an alternative to legal action.
“This bill will give our local governments the resources to make sure they’re complying with the ADA,” Reiskin said. “Particularly after the year we just had. People who were blind couldn’t sign up for vaccines, get information online, sign language interpreters weren’t widely available. Failing to fund this says people with disabilities don’t matter.”
State Rep. David Ortiz, the first state lawmaker who uses a wheelchair, was a sponsor and advocate for the bill.
Reiskin and LaBarre say they’re relieved the bill is now moving forward, though that wasn’t a guarantee, even in recent days. It did clear the House overwhelmingly, but it was pulled from the Senate appropriations calendar last Friday and the sponsors were told funding for it was in question.
“So I get a message from my Senate sponsor and from a lot of disabled rights activists that work in the community stating that it was removed off the calendar altogether. And that that’s an indication that the bill is on its way to dying. I was incredulous,” said Democratic state Rep. David Ortiz from Littleton, who is the main House sponsor.
Ortiz is also the first state lawmaker to use a wheelchair. He was injured in a catastrophic helicopter crash while serving in the U.S Army in Afghanistan and has made it a point during his first year at the Capitol to try to highlight issues people living with disabilities face.
After Friday’s events, he and others started lobbying the lawmakers who were in charge of the budget and legislative leaders, and reaching out to them via phone calls, text messages, and social media.
“So then the story changed from, well, ‘It’s not on a calendar,’ to, ‘We have to put a pause and consider everything ‘cause we’re overcommitted,’ which wasn’t a good enough answer for me,” Ortiz said. “We’re talking about basic access, not convenience. Access that everybody else that’s able-bodied takes for granted. This should be a priority. And we funded things that are way more expensive.”