For the state legislature that promoted legislation for people with disabilities, the success of House Bill 21-1110 is the perfect example of why “representation matters”.
After Littleton’s new Democratic entry David Ortiz was elected in 2020, he became the first person to use a wheelchair to serve in the Colorado General Assembly. This year, Ortiz has made efforts to incorporate some federal protections for people with disabilities into state law to make it easier for them to sue the government for discrimination.
Other states, including California, have similar disability rights. The Colorado legislation, which Democratic Governor Jared Polis signed on June 30, also goes one step further.
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When the HB-1110 requirements are fully implemented, Colorado will be the first state in the country to require state and local public agencies to meet website accessibility standards. The state’s information technology office is tasked with developing these standards and hiring a software developer to help the state authorities implement them.
Lawyers from groups like the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and the National Federation of the Blind originally approached Ortiz with their proposal for HB-1110. They told him that no other state has passed a website accessibility law, Ortiz said. He endeavored to support the effort.
This shows why it is important to have people from the disabled community in elected offices, argued Ortiz.
“When it comes to the fight for disability rights, we have many allies, but your community is different,” he said.
State Reps. David Ortiz, left, and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez listen during a press conference in support of Senate Act 21-87, which will provide a constitutional order for agricultural workers in the Colorado Capitol on May 20, 2021. (Quentin Young / Colorado Newsline)
According to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, true online accessibility means that people should be able to “perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the web” and “contribute to the web” – regardless of auditory, cognitive, neurological or physical characteristics, speech or visual impairment.
For example, an accessible website should contain text descriptions for images, videos, graphics and logos. The text is important to blind or partially sighted people who may be using a screen reader or Braille device. People who are deaf or hard of hearing need transcriptions of audio and video content.
“We all learned the importance of this access over the past year,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. “Access to broadband is one thing, but the ability to … use the websites is really important.”
According to HB-1110, government agencies must develop and submit plans for website accessibility to the OIT by July 1, 2022, and implement those plans by July 1, 2024. Local authorities must also meet the OIT standards by July 2024.
Because of the other important part of the legislation, there are ramifications for non-compliance. HB-1110 makes it a state violation of civil rights for a government agency to exclude people with disabilities from receiving any service or benefit. Any government agency in Colorado that does not meet OIT’s web accessibility standards may be subject to an injunction, that is, a court order; actual monetary damage; or a $ 3,500 fine payable to the plaintiff, who must be someone from the disabled community.
“Restraints ensure there is no penalty: If you can’t be reached, just fix it,” Ortiz said.
While state and local agencies are already subject to federal accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act, adding these protections to state law means people with disabilities can file a discrimination lawsuit in a state court instead of just a federal court – for accessibility issues with government programs and -Facilities ranging from transportation systems to the Capitol. From July 2024, people can file state lawsuits about internet accessibility.
“The ADA is in effect right now, so there’s nothing stopping someone from going to federal court and suing the state and local governments this second if there is an access issue,” said Reiskin.
However, the new ability to bring certain ADA-style lawsuits in state courts means it will be easier for people living in rural areas – far removed from the Denver District Court – to hold the government accountable for discrimination violations.
Proponents hope that legal action will not be required to get governments to adhere to the same standards that they should meet under the 1990 ADA.
Initially, groups representing Colorado’s counties, cities, towns, and specialty districts were concerned that the bill was imposing difficult-to-meet requirements, but local governments came to a neutral position after the bill was amended to compromise some. This also included extending the deadline originally set this year for making websites accessible.
Now that Colorado has an online accessibility law, Reiskin expects other states to follow suit.
At the same time, advocates of disability are urging President Joe Biden’s administration to resume a rulemaking process to implement federal standards for online accessibility. Rulemaking began under former President Barack Obama, but was abandoned under Obama’s successor Donald Trump in 2017. Federal regulations prescribing minimum standards for internet accessibility would allow the Department of Justice to enforce them under the ADA.
When that happens, “our state and local governments will be ahead of the curve,” said Reiskin.
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