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.”
Democratic state Sen. Chris Hansen sits on the powerful Joint Budget Committee and says laying over the bill was never because of a disagreement on the policy.
“It was us really needing to take a pause to make sure that we were in a good position as far as the commitments we were making on the general fund," Hansen said. "I've been a part of the appropriations process now for five years, that has happened every single year. So that is a very normal part of what we do.”
Colorado has plenty of money to spend this year between the state budget and aid packages.
What makes this year unusual, though, is money is not hard to come by. The state has an influx of $4 billion of federal money, a state budget that is flush with cash, and, on top of that, an $800 million state stimulus package.
“We really have three different budgets, if you will, we have the general fund budget, we have the state stimulus budget, and now we have the federal budget,” said Republican state Sen. Bob Rankin, who also sits on the budget committee. “There's an awful lot of money involved. And on Friday we had an interesting day that a lot of it was well, it was negotiation on how we structure the spending for the next four years of the $4 billion of federal stimulus.”
The budget committee decided to rearrange some of the funds and use more of the federal money right now.
“We think many of the state stimulus bills are actually better and more appropriately funded with federal stimulus because they fit the guidance very carefully,” Hansen said. “I would estimate that we used federal stimulus money to backfill, approximately $150 million of state stimulus money, and that gives us more flexibility on the general fund.”
Budget committee chair Democratic state Sen. Dominick Moreno said that change means he doesn’t expect any bills to fail this year purely because of a lack of funding.
“It’s an unusual year, but there have been so many moving parts,” he said.
Some Republicans are opposed to the huge amount of spending this session but Democrats control both chambers of the legislature.
The disability access bill is one of more than twenty measures that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. It was put on the calendar for a full floor vote later in the day. Labarre said he’s delighted, but said the measure never should have been in limbo.
He hopes its passage will mean he and others won’t ever have to experience what they did last year when they initially couldn’t get the state’s online COVID-19 information.
“We had to wait several weeks to catch up with information that was crucial at the time to get, but we had, again, like usual to wait on the backbench and get information later. If these standards were in place, if the state were actually following them and thinking about these things ahead of time, which, that's what this bill will cause to happen, that lack of access to critical public information never would have happened.”