Americans with Disabilities Act: Getting Colorado in line with federal law

A proposal that aims to bring Colorado civil rights laws in line with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act was approved last week at its first and second Senate committee hearing -- and if it passes one more hurdle today, it will reach the House this week.

"The current Colorado civil rights law is scattered in a bunch of different places, with several inconsistencies," says Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which has been pushing for such a measure for a few years. "For example, with the ADA, things have changed over time and business and employers have to follow two set of standards, which is confusing for everyone."

Much of Senate Bill 14-118, sponsored by Senator Pat Steadman and supported by 34 different organizations, is a clean-up, updating the language of the current law, which dates from the Colorado Civil Rights Act of 1990. For example, the proposal calls for wording that refers to people with disabilities rather than as "blind" or "handicapped;" "assistance dog" will become "service animal."

Other provisions would bring Colorado law in compliance with federal law. "The way the law is currently written has created a double standard for the state and local government," says Mark Simon, an activist for people with disabilities. "But if the bill passes, people with disabilities will not literally have to come to a federal case out of cases of discrimination. They can go to state courts. So if you live in Durango, you don't have to go to Denver.

"Under the ADA, they've got a program modification standard," Simon continues. "But under our state law, they have a physical removal standard. If you are in a school and you have a class on the second floor and it's not available for you, they don't build an elevator -- they move the class to the first floor," Simon explains.

In addition to updating Colorado laws to comply with the ADA and grouping all the laws in one place, the bill would also increase statutory damages -- from $50 up to $3,500 -- for discrimination in places of public accommodation or housing, as well as for violations involving a service animal. There would be also be an adjustment of a provision that currently allows for attorney fees in cases of discrimination against a service animal, but not against a person.

The proposal passed its first hearing on April 21 and its second hearing (with additional amendments) four days later, on April 25. According to Reiskin, it'll likely be the subject of a final Senate vote today. If passed, the measure will then head to the House, where time is short; there's only a week and a half left in the current legislation session.

From our archives: "Medicaid's new assessment for disabled children could hinder instead of help."

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