For the Disabled on the Hill, Access Is Everything

The Capitol campus is constantly being upgraded to make it easier to navigate for those with disabilities, but there's more work to be done.

Rep. Jim Langevin cast a vote on the House floor and scooted toward an elevator off the Speaker's lobby—chatting with his colleagues as they made room for his wheelchair in the small space—and then hurried out of the Capitol.

As if on autopilot, he maneuvered his motorized chair around packs of people, through green poles on the Capitol Hill sidewalks and toward the closest curb ramps. Across from the Rayburn building—his destination for a subcommittee hearing—he paused. There was a new curb cut.

"I was aiming for that right over there," Langevin said, pointing to a driveway a few feet away.

"That's the first time you've seen it, right?" Erik Lesnewsky, the congressman's special assistant, asked. "Because that's the first time I've seen it."

Around the campus, Architect of the Capitol workers are making sidewalk and ramp repairs, part of an ongoing effort to meet the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act. This month, the ADA—which prohibits discrimination and grants those with disabilities the same opportunities as other Americans—turns 25. (Twenty years ago, the legislative branch, which can exempt itself from laws, passed a bill requiring it to comply with the ADA, civil-rights laws, and other labor laws.)

But it's a balancing act for Congress to actually follow the law it passed, particularly for buildings as old and storied as the Capitol.

"There's often a challenge of making historic buildings ADA-accessible," Stephen Ayers, the Architect of the Capitol, said. "Certainly, they weren't designed that way in the beginning, and we want to make those kinds of interventions very carefully so that they appropriately fit in and comply with our preservation standards."

Capitol Hill is a maze of hallways and tunnels, entrances and exits, small office suites and large committee rooms. At the height of D.C. tourist season, Congress' home can be flooded with up to 20,000 visitors per day—not to mention the 535 lawmakers and thousands of staffers already crammed into the Capitol and its adjoining buildings.

In general, the ADA requires that public services and needed accommodations be accessible for those who are disabled. This "usually means that access must be provided to the buildings and facilities where these services and accommodations are provided," according to an "ADA Access in the Legislative Branch" brochure from the Office of Compliance.

"The way the standards read, not every space has to be accessible," said John Uelmen, the Office of Compliance's ADA program manager and an OOC supervising attorney. "And the way our act is read, we're primarily looking at what the public has access to and whether there's space for the constituents and the same in hearing rooms."

On the Hill, the Office of Compliance—an independent, nonpartisan agency—is charged with inspecting the interior and exterior of legislative branch facilities for ADA compliance. In its 1996 biennial report—the first of its kind and just one year after the ADA applied to Congress—the OOC noted that access to public services and spaces was, overall, "good." Yet there was inadequate information to show the public-accessible entrances, facilities, and services offered for the disabled. The report also included a variety of changes needed to remove architectural barriers and generally better the Capitol campus' accessibility.

And it's improved.

That's according to several stakeholders, including those with disabilities and disability-rights advocates. Yet all of them ticked off additions they believe could further enhance accessibility. Their wish list: More handicap-accessible entrances to the Capitol, House, and Senate office buildings. Additional accessible bathrooms. And automatic openers on every lawmaker's office door.

"It's certainly not as bad as it was 25 years ago," said Tom Sheridan, who was a cochair of the ADA lobby task force, "but if you'd asked me 25 years ago where we would be today, I would have thought it would be remarkably better."

Back before 1990, Sheridan remembers a Capitol where, at the height of the fight to pass the ADA, the most accessible route for a disability-rights advocate who uses a wheelchair was sometimes through the catering kitchen. The improvements are noticeable, Sheridan says, recalling the days when ramps were virtually nonexistent. But he wants to see more entrances, more restrooms, more accessibility.

Although signs dot the Capitol's walls pointing to the closest accessible bathroom or exit—and there are maps that do the same—that doesn't mean everyone feels that navigating the building is easy. "Once you're inside, the complexities of moving around are hard," said Sheridan, founder and president of The Sheridan Group, a public policy and advocacy firm dedicated to nonprofit public interest issues. "You can't cross the Capitol building easily."

The Office of Congressional Accessibility Services focuses on the service-oriented side of disability access, such as sign language availability, adaptive tours, wheelchair loans, and more. Its website lists the various accessible entry points into the Capitol and other buildings; the office also makes brochures and maps highlighting accessible restrooms, elevators, telephones, ramps, and more.

It's a process. In 1995, the legislative branch was required to follow the ADA when Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act. Getting these buildings up to snuff has taken a three-pronged approach, Ayers said.

At first, money was appropriated over multiple years specifically for the AOC to make ADA repairs. In recent years, funds for standard maintenance money can go toward these changes. And when the Architect of the Capitol performs comprehensive building restorations, the repairs must align with the ADA.

The OOC's last two reports—one for the 111th Congress and one for the 112th— focused on the exterior of several buildings. In both, it found a similar theme: Most of the barriers to access were from curb ramps that didn't meet the ADA's standards and sudden changes in the sidewalk from cracks, holes, gaps and more.

Of the 398 barriers to access found in the 112th Congress, about 50 percent of them "raised safety concerns because of substantial deviations from the ADA standards," according to the most recent report issued last July.

That's currently on the AOC's docket. "Our focus today is on improving sidewalks and enabling those that are mobility impaired to traverse the Capitol campus easily and in compliance with ADA standards," Ayers said. But he added: "Quite frankly, it's an ongoing process. It's something that you can't fix once and then it never happens again."

But when a curb cut or a ramp fails to comply, very little can be done without formal complaints—which are rare, according to Uelmen.

The potential consequences for all other public entities—such as municipalities and school districts—are different than those from the legislative branch. The DOJ can say they must make changes to be up to the ADA's standards, and the department can file lawsuits, according to Uelmen.

But, that doesn't happen in the legislative branch. "We just report on it," Uelmen said of the Office of Compliance's role. "Our authority, in terms of our inspections, is we report to Congress, and say, 'These are the things that we found, and something should be done about it,' but we don't have the authority to say, 'It should be done in six months, a year, or tomorrow.'"

And, Sheridan said, that doesn't give incentives for immediate action. That puts the onus on advocates to hold "Congress's feet to the fire."

When Langevin arrived in Congress, the AOC had work to do. As a 16-year-old, the Rhode Island Democrat was working with the Warwick Police Department as part of a Boy Scout Explorer program when a gun accidentally discharged. The bullet left Langevin paralyzed.

After Langevin came to the House, the AOC retrofitted Langevin's office. They gave him automatic door openers and an extra room for personal care. They renovated the committee rooms, adding a ramp to an adjoining room in the Homeland Security Committee that allows him to get to his seat inside the hearing room.

"Certainly they've renovated the spaces where I've worked or the committee spaces where I work," Langevin said. "One of the things that still sometimes happens where when I go to a committee to testify or when we're using a committee room for a special hearing or something, the temporary ramps still have to be set up, and the rostrum may not be out far enough for me to even get behind the rostrum, so these things still happen from time to time."

On a warm day in late June, as gay-rights advocates who'd just won a civil rights battle of their own meandered about in a post-victory haze, Ian Watlington directed his motorized chair to the Capitol. While inside, the National Disability Rights Network disability-advocacy specialist told of the several times he came to the Capitol in the 2000s in his old job as an advocate in Colorado.

This was his first time back since, but he recalled circuitous routes and small House office suites that were a tight fit for his wheelchair. He said the Capitol campus is a public place that should strive to be one of the most accessible, and for those who are physically disabled, thoughts of accessibility are constant.

"That's always in the back of our mind," Watlington said. "It never quite leaves. Is this place accessible? Where am I going to go? What entrance? I mean, those things run through our heads on a regular basis because they have to."