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.