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Congress / CONGRESS

Capitol Poses Serious Obstacles for People With Disabilities

photo of Erin  Mershon
October 17, 2012

Forget navigating the hallways or figuring out which elevator to use. For a Capitol visitor with limited mobility, just approaching a House office building is a barrier-riddled nightmare.

From too-steep curb ramps to uneven grades, the sidewalks of the Capitol complex alone present a host of barriers for visitors with disabilities. Despite bipartisan awareness and agreement to address the problems, funding isn’t sufficient for repairing barriers—or even to pay for the inspections necessary to identify them. Congressional contractors aren't required to make sure their plans comply with accessibility regulations before they break ground, so they may be adding more barriers as they work to fix existing ones.

In a report to be released on Thursday, an advance copy of which was provided to National Journal, Congress's Office of Compliance details a host of accessibility barriers on the Capitol campus. Its initial survey of House-side sidewalks revealed 154 barriers, more than half of which pose a safety risk for people with disabilities. Ninety-three percent of curb ramps outside the three House buildings, for example, do not comply with the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which, among other things, set legal requirements for building accessibility. Many of the barriers identified on the Capitol campus were erected after the ADA passed and after the law was applied to legislative branch buildings in 1995.


The office also took special interest in surveying Capitol restrooms after receiving specific complaints about bathroom accessibility. The OOC inspected one restroom in each of the Senate and House office buildings—none complied with the ADA. In the Cannon House Office Building, the bathroom was not wide enough for easy wheelchair access; in most bathrooms, door handles, soap dispensers, and handrails were not designed or installed for use by those with disabilities.

Though the OOC must assess accessibility biennially, new software made a more specific inspection process possible last year. Because the agency's resources are limited, however, the OOC did not investigate any individual House or Senate offices. It also did not explore the interiors of the Capitol itself or the Library of Congress, even though all those structures legally must comply with the ADA.

Fixing the barriers it did identify would cost $1.4 million, according to the office's estimates. Upgrades include simple solutions, such as installing new bathroom handrails, as well as more complicated fixes, such as regrading curb ramps. The Architect of the Capitol, which would oversee the work, did not provide the OOC with its own cost estimates in time for the report’s release.

The Capitol and its campus are not under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, which enforces ADA compliance. If it were, DOJ could seek civil penalties of up to $100,000 for some violations. Parties filing complaints with the Justice Department could also seek damages, according to Jonathan Mook, a disability lawyer and ADA expert.

But there is no one with executive authority to ensure that the Architect of the Capitol or its contractors comply with the ADA. The OOC has no power to force the AOC to address problems unless a member of the public files an official complaint with the Compliance Office.

Disability-rights advocates put their concerns in stark terms: An estimated one in five Americans is living with a disability. That 20 percent of the taxpaying public deserves access to their representatives in government, they argue.

“The ADA was passed 22 years ago. This is something the rest of the country is held accountable to, and Congress needs to be as well,” said United Cerebral Palsy's Kaelan Richards. “I don’t think the cost estimates in this were enormous, as compared to other government expenditures. It’s a matter of access. When you get down to the bottom of this, this is a constitutional right we’re talking about.”

Others close to the fight for access to Capitol Hill, however, say the Capitol is far more accessible than it was just 10 years ago. Heavy doors have been replaced with lighter ones and many have automatic openers; ramps and curb cuts were added to sidewalks. More than 260 elevators were modernized to meet ADA standards. The House installed lifts to the speaker's rostrum in 2010.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a quadriplegic and the House's first wheelchair-bound member, first presided over the House when that lift was finished. He applauded efforts in the last decade to make the Capitol accessible.

“Are there some things that still need to be changed, like making sure restrooms are more accessible? Sure. More work still needs to be done,” he said. But “I’m very grateful and very pleased with the progress I’ve seen. It happened too slowly, but we are getting there.”

Republicans, Democrats, and the AOC all agree on the importance of future improvements but the legislative budget is tight. Making the Capitol more accessible is no simple task either. Renovating historic buildings is an especially complicated and costly endeavor; celebrated, untouchable facades and wide expanses of marble can send renovation costs skyrocketing.

“Unlike other civil-rights issues, disability rights does have a price tag. We are in, and probably are going to continue to be in, a pretty tight budget climate. I think it will be hard to get the money to do this,” said Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. He added, “It is always going to be a struggle with the funding, but it’s the law, and we’re pressuring everyone to be compliant.”

Though the AOC accomplished a long list of accessibility improvements during the past few years, it also emphasized that, like OOC, budgetary challenges make it difficult to immediately assess and solve every problem that arises.

“We work to minimize the budgetary impacts of these improvements by including ADA improvements as part of larger projects when appropriate,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said in an e-mail. “This helps to save taxpayer dollars and to reduce the amount of construction occurring across the campus at one time.”

But it isn’t just old historic buildings at the Capitol that aren’t accessible. Even new renovations--like the sidewalks outside House office buildings, many of which were updated after the 2001 terrorist attacks--don’t always comply with the legislation’s requirements.

In the private sector and in state and local government buildings, building inspectors ensurethat proposals for new construction comply with the ADA, as is legally required. But on Capitol Hill, there is no requirement that new construction be assessed for its compliance with the ADA, and though the OOC offers free technical assistance to architects and contractors, there is no legal requirement that Capitol construction crews follow or even seek their advice.

The AOC, for its part, said it does work to ensure that new facilities meet ADA requirements. The AOC gave the example of the Capitol Visitor’s Center, which is fully ADA-compliant and has been lauded by people with disabilities as welcoming and “nothing short of amazing” in its accessibility.

But OOC uses the same construction project as evidence that its work is needed earlier. When Congress was building the CVC, OOC was not asked to inspect plans for the new construction, the agency said. OOC inspected the building only after the House Appropriations Committee asked it to do so, after much of the construction had been completed. Its inspections revealed more than 150 Occupational Safety and Health Administration and ADA violations, which the AOC then abated.

Disagreements, albeit rare, over whether or how to address a certain hazard or barrier leave the AOC and OOC tangled in a somewhat strained relationship. The AOC emphasizes that it has worked closely with OOC to address barriers when it identifies them, and OOC gives the AOC great credit for its work to address accessibility in a tight budget climate. But as occurs in the private sector, the inspector and the builder don’t always see eye to eye.

OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth said that the AOC occasionally pushes back on its recommendations because renovations can be costly and their finances are tight.

“When it comes to abating hazards, they understand what the law is, and, when we inspect and point them out in our reports, they attempt to remedy them. But sometimes we have to push to get it done,” he said in a statement.

The complicated jurisdiction over accessibility issues on Capitol Hill stems from a strange history of legislating for the Capitol campus. Until 1995, Congress was itself exempt from many of the workplace rights laws it passed for the executive branch, state governments, and private-sector employers, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the ADA. The bipartisan legislation passed in 1995 was designed to show citizens, "we are willing to abide by the same laws that we require of them," according to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a vocal proponent of the 1995 legislation.

The legislation set up the Office of Compliance to oversee the legislative branch's compliance with the laws. But in drafting the act, Congress still exempted itself from key provisions of the legislation, including several that protect whistle-blowers who report health and safety hazards or require posting notices about workplace rights. On accessibility issues, Congress was stricter on itself, including the entirety of the ADA in its responsibilities. But Congress gave the enforcing OOC little power to mandate that compliance.

Limited resources further constrict OOC in its efforts to address accessibility. Its congressional mandate requires it to conduct biennial ADA inspections of all 18 million square feet of the capitol campus. But sparse resources have so constricted its inspection capabilities, both for OSHA violations and ADA violations, that it can only devote one-quarter of one employee's time to ADA-related inspections, which are more complicated and time-consuming than OSHA inspections.

Another related roadblock in the path to an ADA-compliant campus is OOC's limited profile. Visitors with disabilities often interact with the Office of Accessibility Services, a separate branch of the AOC that provides, among other things, wheelchairs, information in braille, and sign-language interpreting services to people with disabilities visiting the Hill. Those visiting temporarily don't necessarily know how or where to address complaints about access. Until recently, for example, one prominent disability-rights advocate, a wheelchair user, did not know OOC existed.

“This is really the first I’ve even heard about this agency.... I think we’ve been doing a lot of complaining, but we weren’t really sure who to complain to,” said Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. Buckland added, “Now that we know who to complain to, I think now they’ll probably hear from us more. We will definitely direct our member’s complaints to them.”

Though improving accessibility is a multifaceted challenge requiring the orchestration of lawmakers, the Office of Accessibility Services, the Capitol Police, the AOC, and OOC, renovating the barriers identified in Thursday’s report is largely under the purview of the AOC. OOC has pledged to help the AOC on a transition plan to address the barriers, just as DOJ would do in the settlements outside the legislative branch.

The AOC seems very amenable to rectifying the barriers. In a July letter sent to OOC on accessibility in the legislative branch, AOC Chief Operating Officer Christine Merdon acknowledged that more work remains.

In her letter, she outlined the AOC’s efforts to work with stakeholders to develop a plan to create a “comprehensive program including schedules for identification and removal of barriers.” The AOC has also conducted its own surveys of exterior access barriers, and plans to “prioritize efforts toward continually improving access to facilities,” she said.

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