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New Laws Protect Access to Housing, Businesses, and the Outdoors for Coloradans With Disabilities

Jun 1, 2023 |

By Lucas Brady Woods/KUNC

Colorado is implementing new resources for people with disabilities with several new laws signed this week by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera. The measures expand coverage for prosthetics, create a task force to study disability access across the state and make it easier for people with disabilities to take legal action if they experience discrimination.

Rep. David Ortiz, who sponsored the bills, is the first Colorado lawmaker to use a wheelchair. Ortiz is a former military pilot who was left paralyzed after surviving a helicopter crash while on deployment in Afghanistan.

“Folks, ADA has been on for 33 years, and we’re still fighting for basic access,” Ortiz said, referring to the federal American with Disabilities Act of 1990. “Colorado is going to be leading the way and making sure that we are, in a meaningful way, securing basic access so that those living with a disability, visible or invisible, can fully participate in our society.”

One of the new laws will require health insurers to cover an additional prosthetic devices for people under 26 years old if it will help them participate in certain sports and recreational activities like running, cycling, swimming, climbing and skiing. Until now, Coloradans have only been entitled to one prosthetic device covered by insurance.

Angela Montgomery is a Fort Collins based prosthetist-orthotist, or someone who makes prosthetic devices for people with disabilities. She says limiting people to a single, everyday device either prevents them from participating in certain physical activities or forces them to use their device for movement it’s not meant for.

“People living with limb loss have not had access to any device outside of one single device per limb for basic human locomotion, basic activities of daily living,” Montgomery said. “If you were a 10 year-old kid that wanted to participate in Little League, you would have to do that on a basic prosthesis, which is something that is not meant for those types of biomechanics. So it breaks. It causes issues to your body.”

Until now, she says, access to additional prosthetics was limited to people who could afford to pay for them out of pocket or those who are able to successfully apply for grants.

11-year-old Lila Heskin, who uses a prosthetic leg and loves lacrosse, will be able to get a new device specifically designed for running and playing sports, called a blade.

“We’ve been wanting to get her a proper blade for some time and now we’ll be able to do it,” Her mother Ann Heskin said at the bill-signing ceremony. “I think it’s such a big deal for kids. I mean, athletic prosthetic devices can cost upwards of $10,000 which up until this bill has been out of pocket for families.”

Health insurers will be required to offer the additional coverage by January of 2025. However, the coverage under the new law is limited to private insurance, and does not include Medicaid recipients.

The new task force will study disability rights issues in Colorado and will be housed within the state’s Civil Rights Commission. Subcommittees will be charged with looking at accessibility in housing, the outdoors and in state and local government. Another subcommittee will review the state’s current disability rights laws and recommend revisions to them in an initial report by the end of this year.

“I’ve been an advocate in the disability community most of my life,” Lt. Gov. Primavera, who will lead the task force, said ahead of this week’s bill signing. “I started my professional career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, working with people with disabilities to help them overcome their handicaps to employment and become employed.”

Reports on disability access in housing, government and the outdoors will be submitted by December of next year. The task force’s final recommendations have to be submitted to the governor and the General Assembly by January of 2025.

The third new law signed this week, which goes into effect immediately, ensures people with disabilities can file civil lawsuits against private businesses if they experience discrimination in areas like employment, housing and advertising. The law also allows a judge to require a business to provide financial remediation if found guilty of discriminating against a disabled person.

While these new laws take important steps in the right direction, Rep. Ortiz, a longtime champion for disability rights, says more work needs to be done. He also wants to see more people with disabilities run for office and join him under the statehouse’s gold dome.

“I am one person that self-identifies with a visible disability in that dome. I’m the only one,” Ortiz said. “And it gets exhausting. So it’d be nice to get more voices that have this lived experience there that can also be fighting for these bills.”

He wants to move past mandating disability access and offer tax incentives for businesses that go beyond what’s required and are proactive about improving accessibility. He also hopes Colorado’s new laws can serve as an example for legislation in other states and, ideally, in Congress.