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New state office would be barrier-breaking hub for Coloradans with disabilities

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New state office would be barrier-breaking hub for Coloradans with disabilities

Apr 08, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Sara Wilson
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New state office would be barrier-breaking hub for Coloradans with disabilities
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State Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat, speaks on the House floor Feb. 28, 2022. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

As he faces the last eight months of his time as a Colorado lawmaker, Rep. David Ortiz is looking to ensure the continuation of disability rights advocacy when he is no longer in the Capitol.

“Disability rights aren’t on everyone’s radar because they don’t live that way, or they don’t have someone that they love or know live that way. And so the world continues to be inaccessible in a real detrimental way,” the Littleton Democrat told Colorado Newsline.

Ortiz, who was first elected in 2020, is the first Colorado lawmaker to use a wheelchair. During his time in the Capitol, he has championed legislation to strengthen state discrimination laws for people with disabilities, allow people the right to repair their own wheelchairs and require insurance to cover prosthetics for recreation, among many other bills related to disability and accessibility issues.

He consistently brings access-related amendments to other legislation, reminding lawmakers to consider every potential law through an accessibility lens.

Now, as he prepares to leave the chamber — he decided not to seek a third term — he wants a permanent presence in state government to weigh in on these topics.

“(Most people) don’t understand the barriers that we have to live with and that we have to navigate, and it’s past time to get rid of them. This office is going to be a focal point, or a hub, to making sure that we’re coordinating efforts to do that,” he said. “It’s not tied to any one administration or any one legislator. This is something that is going to continue in perpetuity, hopefully.”

House Bill 24-1360, which Ortiz is sponsoring, would establish the Colorado Disability Opportunity Office within the Department of Labor and Employment to serve as a wide-ranging resource around disability issues in the state, from helping people obtain benefits to submitting policy recommendations to the governor.

Additionally, the office would be tasked with envisioning and implementing a statewide strategy to promote economic stability and social integration for people with disabilities.

“Our goal is, as this office is built out and grows to what it has been envisioned in the legislation, that the office is equipped with the tools, the time and the knowledge to really convene effective and deep stakeholder meetings on the variety of topics that impact people with disabilities across all of the government agencies,” said Jack Johnson, the public policy liaison at Disability Law Colorado, a nonprofit that specializes in civil rights and discrimination cases.

There are times, Johnson said, that the disability community is included in conversations only after a bill is introduced or when there is a major budget adjustment, rather than being a participant from the start. That can result in a lot of defensive, reactionary policy work.

‘Paradigm of opportunity’

The bill outlines an ambitious, wide directive for an office. Supporters think of it as a clearinghouse for the current, sometimes overlapping, efforts on disability issues in the state. The office would absorb, for example, the ​​Colorado Disability Funding Committee.

“We identified many, many years ago that there was a need for a coordinated disability response, because disability touches so many of the different state agencies,” said Julie Reiskin, the co-executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, an advocacy group for disability rights.

That coordination would affect how people with disabilities interact with the state — right now, Reiskin said there is often confusion about where to go for certain questions, such as with benefit assistance — but it could also streamline the many disability-related commissions, task forces and other advisory bodies in the state.

We're looking at being able to tap into the opportunities that able-bodied Coloradans take for granted and already get to enjoy it.

– Rep. David Ortiz

“We need people with disabilities and with a disability lens inside the government. You can’t expect a bunch of state agency directors to understand our community and know our issues, as much as they have great intentions,” she said.

Ortiz thinks the office would be instrumental in shifting how Coloradans think about people with disabilities — from a “paradigm of poverty” to a “paradigm of opportunity.” That means clearing the path for people with disabilities to earn a livable wage at a fulfilling job, have stable housing and use public transportation without barriers. It also means opening up Colorado’s recreation and outdoor culture.

“We’re looking at being able to tap into the opportunities that able-bodied Coloradans take for granted and already get to enjoy it,” he said.

CDOO would be funded with money from the Disability Support cash fund, not the general fund. That could be crucial as lawmakers, who only have about $20 million for new programs this year, consider bills with high price tags over the next months.

“We deserve that general fund money. But because we have to fight tooth and nail for every piece of disability rights legislation that has a fiscal note, I’m glad we can bypass that by making sure we’re self-funded,” Ortiz said.

The cash fund is supported by fees from historic license plates: the all black, blue or red plates with white lettering, or the reverse of the current standard green-and-white plate called “Greenie” that have become increasingly popular on Colorado roads. To date, the fund has raised about $6.4 million, according to the governor’s office.

Sand Creek Massacre
Colorado Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera speaks during a press conference on Aug. 17, 2021, in front of the Colorado State Capitol building. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Lieutenant governor’s support

The creation of CDOO has been a long time coming, Reiskin said. Cuts to disability programming during the Great Recession made the need more salient to the disability advocacy community, but even as task forces and commissions formed, there was always a funding issue. The license plate funding mechanism is key to starting the office, as is the presence of Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, who bill supporters say has been a champion for accessibility issues.

Primavera added a senior policy advisor on disability issues to her team in 2020. She also moved the Disability Funding Committee to her office, and since then revenue has grown from $100,000 in ten years to $500,000 on a monthly basis, she said.

“This office is intended to help support the incredible work of the agencies through collaboration and coordination, not alter or remove their authority. It will also support agencies as they work towards shared goals of prosperity and independence of Coloradans with disabilities,” she said during the bill’s first committee hearing last month. “HB-1360 will ensure pro-disability policy efforts continue long into the future.”

HB-1360 passed unanimously out of the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee. It needs to be signed off by the House Finance Committee before being considered by the entire chamber. It is also sponsored by Rep. Chad Clifford, a Centennial Democrat, in the House. It does not yet have a Senate sponsor.

The legislative session ends May 8.