Without his family and years of support, Mitch Routon doesn’t know what he would do now.
The 41-year-old Colorado Springs man has intellectual disabilities and is now an advocate for himself and others with The Arc of Colorado, an organization promoting guidelines to serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We can do the same thing as everyone else,” said Routon. “It can only be at a slower pace.”
Support for Coloradans with disabilities was one of the issues that took place in the Colorado Legislature this year with Disability Act becoming law.
Christiano Sosa, executive director of The Arc of Colorado, called it a “banner year”.
“We can always put band-aids on problems and provide people with the services they need, but if we don’t change the guidelines, if we don’t change the law, if we don’t change laws and regulations, we will always catch up,” said Sosa, who also has a brother with mental health problems.
The new laws include:
- HB21-1110, which requires state and local authorities to meet website accessibility standards and makes it easier for people to sue local or state government agencies for discrimination;
- SB21-039, which prohibits employers from paying people with disabilities a tiered minimum wage (wage below the highest applicable minimum wage);
- SB21-075, which legally recognizes decision-making arrangements that can supplement or replace guardianship
- HB21-1085, which provides a means of transport for behavioral crises;
- HB21-1014, which creates an option for a disabled symbol on licenses or badges;
- SB21-188, which will improve access to ballot papers for voters with disabilities; and
- HB21-1122, which requires first aid training in dealing with people with disabilities.
The Arc of Colorado endorsed several of these laws, as well as others that would help with case management for people with intellectual disabilities and fund government services.
Routon, who serves on the board of directors of The Arc of Colorado, has felt the effects of discrimination against people with disabilities in previous workplaces – he now works at an Arc Thrift store in Colorado Springs.
He had a stroke and seizure disorder as an infant until he was approximately 11 years old, which affected his development. Routon said he often felt that as he made progress he was facing another hurdle.
“I would like the whole country to do what Colorado does because it’s very important that people with disabilities get paid equally,” he said of the minimum wage law.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Colorado State Representatives Susan Lontine, left, and David Ortiz, right, address the House of Representatives in Denver on April 19, 2021.
The Statehouse has a caucus of one representing Coloradans with physical disabilities: Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat and the first Colorado MP to use a wheelchair. The Afghanistan war veteran had an army helicopter crash in 2012 that paralyzed his lower body.
In addition to the Web Site Access Act, he supported three others related to the rights of people with disabilities, including HB21-1169, on the prohibition of organ transplant discrimination for people with disabilities, introduced by Republican Tonya Van Beber, and HB21- 1318, which is an outdoor equity grant program. The third, HB21-1065, allows private employers to give preference to veterans in employment, including veterans with disabilities.
“It’s great to have allies, it’s even better to have a representative, but when you both work together you can do an amazing job and I think that really illustrated this session,” he said.
Ortiz even drove the transformation in the Capitol building. Despite trying to advocate accessibility prior to serving on the United Veterans Committee for Colorado, he said it was necessary to be elected to make the Capitol more wheelchair friendly, even for wheelchair users.
In the chamber of the Colorado House, the crews installed ramps to allow him to move. Some of the doors of the building have been widened. The bathrooms are currently being renovated to make sure they are more accessible and later this summer the crews will be installing an elevator on the podium of the house.
In the Senate, Wheat Ridge Democrat Jessie Danielson is helping plan physical changes to the chamber to make it more wheelchair accessible.
Danielson’s passion for helping people with disabilities – this year and in the past – stems from her mother’s experiences, including running an independent housing facility for people with disabilities in Greeley.
“We should take up this issue by nature as legislators, but it seems that discrimination is still so widely acceptable (to) people with disabilities, so we have to keep doing what we can,” she said.
Much has changed, albeit slowly, since Julie Reiskin began working with people with disabilities with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Reiskin has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair. She has visual spatial problems so that she can no longer drive.
She had to work as an unpaid director for nearly 10 years to continue using government services. That has changed since then, but other policy solutions are not as simple as focusing only on benefit or discrimination, she said.
“Helping people with disabilities to be active and involved and not live in poverty is really the next goal,” said Reiskin, and that was followed by “effective communication”.
The new law, which would oblige state agencies to implement plans to ensure their websites are more accessible to people with disabilities (through options like text descriptions) and ensure that state and local agencies comply with ADA regulations, will help, she said .
Another law that has been drawn up for years provides for the possibility of putting a symbol for the disabled on driver’s licenses and ID cards. The initiative, supported by the National Association of the Blind, is the second nationwide; Alaska was the first.
Rebecca Zickerman, a Littleton High School graduate, is working with Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, whose own son is autistic, to advocate the issue.
Zickerman has cerebral palsy. People can’t tell right away, but she has trouble controlling some of her movements.
“If stopped for any reason, I could be accused of being influenced for not being able to walk in a straight line,” said Zickerman.
Zickerman also has dyslexia and said she often didn’t talk about her invisible disabilities until a high school coach encouraged her to speak up. Now she is doing it to help others.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post
Tape marks where a wheelchair lift is about to be installed in the house chamber of the Colorado Capitol building in Denver on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Littleton State Representative Colin Larson has worked to find solutions for people with disabilities after hearing from people in his district, working with the Stepping Stone Support Center, a day care center for adults with disabilities, to help set up a coffee shop.
Larson endorsed the new law requiring first aid training and two other disability-related bills this year, believing that the problems people with disabilities face are not addressed on a regular basis.
Next year he will seek to build on his work related to non-emergency transportation services for people with disabilities. He plans to come up with another bill next year that could increase the types of transportation services that people with government support could use and allow more flexibility.
Larson also hopes lawmakers will address issues such as the lack of housing for people with intellectual disabilities. Ortiz said many issues that lawmakers are trying to address need to be given equal consideration across all areas – race, gender identity and sexual orientation, and people with disabilities.
“Access will be the biggest thing I’ll focus on, whether it’s mental health care, whether we’re talking about health care, whether it’s about durable equipment, whether it’s about job opportunities and making sure jobs are accessible, or do a better job of making job opportunities accessible, ”he said.