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Colorado first in the nation to require web accessibility for government

New state law makes it easier for people with disabilities to sue state and local agencies for discrimination

BY: FAITH MILLER – JULY 20, 2021 5:00 AM

To the state lawmaker who sponsored legislation for people with disabilities, the success of House Bill 21-1110 is the perfect example of why “representation matters.”

After freshman Democratic Rep. David Ortiz of Littleton was elected in 2020, he became the first person who uses a wheelchair to serve in the Colorado General Assembly. This year, Ortiz led efforts to incorporate some federal protections for people with disabilities into state law, making it easier for them to sue the government for discrimination.

Other states including California have passed similar disability rights laws. Colorado’s legislation — which Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed on June 30 — also goes a step further.

When HB-1110’s requirements are fully implemented, Colorado will be the first state in the country to require by law that state and local public entities meet website accessibility standards. The state’s Office of Information Technology is tasked with developing those standards and hiring a software developer to help state agencies implement them.

Advocates from groups including the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and the National Federation of the Blind originally approached Ortiz with their proposal for HB-1110. They told him no other states had passed a web accessibility law, Ortiz said. He was eager to back the effort.

That shows why it’s important to have people from the disability community in elected office, Ortiz argued.

“When it comes to fighting for disability rights, we have plenty of allies, but it’s different when it’s your community,” he said.

According to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, true accessibility online means people should be able to “perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web,” as well as “contribute to the Web” — regardless of auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech or visual disability.

For example, an accessible website should have text descriptions for images, videos, charts, and logos. The text is important for people who are blind or visually impaired, who may use a screen reader or Braille device. People who are deaf or hard of hearing need transcriptions of audio and video content.

“We’ve all learned this past year how important it is to have that access,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. “Access to broadband is one thing, but just being able to … use the websites is really important also.”

HB-1110 requires state agencies to develop and submit website accessibility plans to OIT by July 1, 2022, and implement those plans by July 1, 2024. Local agencies must meet OIT’s standards by July of 2024 as well.

There are consequences for noncompliance, thanks to the other important part of the legislation. HB-1110 makes it a state civil rights violation for a government agency to exclude people with disabilities from receiving services or benefits. Any Colorado agency that doesn’t meet OIT’s web accessibility standards could be subject to injunctive relief, meaning a court order; actual monetary damages; or a fine of $3,500 payable to the plaintiff, who must be someone from the disability community.

“Injunctive relief is making it so that it’s not punitive: If you’re not accessible, just fix it,” Ortiz explained.

While state and local agencies are already subject to federal accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act, adding those protections to state laws means people with disabilities will be able to bring a discrimination lawsuit in state court instead of just federal court — over accessibility issues with government programs and facilities ranging from transit systems to the Capitol building. People can bring state lawsuits over web accessibility starting in July of 2024.

“The ADA is in effect right now, so there’s nothing that would stop anyone from going to federal court and suing the state and local government this second if there is an access problem,” Reiskin pointed out.

However, the new ability to bring certain ADA-style lawsuits in state court means it will be easier for people who live in rural areas — far from the federal district court in Denver — to hold the government accountable for discrimination violations.

Advocates hope it doesn’t take a lawsuit to get governments into compliance with the same standards they should arguably already be meeting under the ADA, which passed in 1990.

Initially, groups representing Colorado’s counties, cities, towns, and special districts were worried the bill imposed hard-to-meet requirements, but the local governments came to a neutral position after the bill was amended to make some compromises. That included extending the deadline for making websites accessible, which was originally set this year.

Now that Colorado has a web accessibility law on the books, Reiskin expects other states may follow suit.

At the same time, disability advocates are pushing for President Joe Biden’s administration to restart a rulemaking process to implement federal web accessibility standards. The rulemaking was started under former President Barack Obama but abandoned under Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, in 2017. Federal rules dictating minimum web accessibility standards would allow the Department of Justice to enforce them under the ADA.

If and when that happens, “our state and local governments will be ahead of the curve,” Reiskin said.

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