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After 20 Years, Congress Still Poses Barriers

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. James Langevin testify Thursday during a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hearing on the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

When Rep. James Langevin ascends to the Speaker’s rostrum to preside over the House chamber today on the 20th anniversary of the day the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed, the moment will symbolize nearly two decades of progress on the Capitol grounds.

A milestone in wheelchair accessibility under the Dome, the podium has been retrofitted with a mechanical lift that for the first time will elevate the Rhode Island Democrat, a quadriplegic since age 16, to the pinnacle of House governance.

“When he takes up that gavel it will be a historic moment for the Congress,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “Mr. Langevin wanted to do that and we had to make sure he was able to.”

But Langevin’s exit from a Thursday Judiciary Committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building — where he touted the ADA’s role in extending civil rights to millions of Americans — was a stark reminder that there is still a long way to go to modernize an ancient Capitol complex.

His mechanical wheelchair was too wide to fit through the room’s half-open double doors. In the absence of a push-button exit, a Langevin staffer opened the second door panel for him.

“Before I leave this Congress, I hope to have the Capitol complex fully accessible,” Langevin, elected in 2000, said outside the hearing room. “The changes have been major, they are ongoing and certainly the best is yet to come.”

Though President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, the legislation wasn’t applied to Congress until five years later, when the Congressional Accountability Act created the Office of Compliance to administer workplace laws on the Hill.

Capitol facilities have since undergone dramatic renovations.

The Senate floor and rostrum were made accessible, for instance, to accommodate then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a disabled Army veteran who uses a wheelchair.

The House floor was redesigned to include height-adjustable lecterns and egress ramps.

Ramps were placed in the Capitol and office buildings, along with automatic push-button doors in several offices and committee rooms and push-to-talk devices to communicate with Capitol Police.

And as perhaps the crowning achievement of accessibility, the Capitol Visitor Center was completed in 2008.

“The visitor center is in total compliance. It’s actually beautifully done,” said ex-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), the ADA’s primary sponsor who now advocates for disability issues from outside government. “That’s the one dramatic improvement.”

The Office of Congressional Accessibility Services offers visitors adaptive tours of the Capitol, along with wheelchair loans and assistive listening devices.

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