House Set To Remove Hall Clutter

Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:38pm

Signage and furniture sitting in Congressional hallways created obstacles for a number of disabled people who came to lobby on Capitol Hill this week, as advocates tripped and bumped into furnishings while on their way to offices and hearing rooms.

But a change in House policy could soon make things much easier for the disabled on on Capitol Hill, where corridors are often filled with old committee tables, stacks of chairs and easels holding a variety of large laminated signs.

Jointly proposed in the fall by House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the new hallway policy seeks to improve House compliance with the requirements included in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the proposal, House offices would not be allowed to place or store items within a hallway or exit access, including equipment and furnishings such as signs, tables, easels, carpets and pedestals.

Anything placed in the hallway will be “presumed to be excess” and removed, according to the proposal, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call.

These items would be held by the Chief Administrative Officer for three days and then disposed of if not claimed. Temporary, extended and long-term storage would be available for certain items.

The plan is waiting approval by the House Office Building Commission, of which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) are members.

“The HOBC is considering the bipartisan [House Administration] recommendations that address hallway accessibility and safety issues,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Wednesday.

House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said that committee members expect the building commission to approve new regulations “in the near future.”

The problems created this week by signage and furniture weren’t a surprise to Mariana Nork, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based American Association of People with Disabilities.

“There’s always people with disabilities up on the Hill, and people are always having difficulties,” she said, adding that her group has long lobbied for a policy of “no tables in the hallways, no signage, no coat racks.”

“The signage on the hill is horrible,” Nork said. “It’s a tremendous barrier. … It’s extremely difficult to get around.”

Nork noted that when her group holds events on Capitol Hill, it must be careful that the locations picked are suited for the disabled, not only by clearing out nearby hallways but also by ensuring close access to handicapped restrooms.

An Ehlers spokeswoman said the struggles that the disabled regularly face on Capitol Hill offer proof that the new policy should be implemented.

“Fire and life-safety conditions need to be a top priority to ensure the safety of not only Members and staff, but also visitors,” spokeswoman Salley Collins said. “We hope that the Speaker will take these policies under immediate consideration.”

A Democratic aide noted that this is not the first time such recommendations have been made to the HOBC; a similar proposal was issued during the Republican-controlled 109th Congress but never approved.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, Chief Fire Marshal Kenneth Lauziere and Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse endorsed the plan in September.

In his Sept. 26 letter recommending that hallways be cleared of “unnecessary obstructions,” Morse writes that hallways already are narrow and crowded during the day, which would impede an evacuation.

“In the event of an emergency, any objects, which obstruct the free flow of people or create a tripping hazard, are a serious impediment to a timely and successful evacuation,” Morse writes in the letter.

The House is not the only chamber seeking to improve disability access on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) distributed a guide last week that outlines ways for Members to make their offices more accessible to disabled staffers and visitors.

And although problems remain, officials say things have improved for the disabled on Capitol Hill in recent years.

For example, an October 2007 Office of Compliance report found that after years of undeveloped plans, officials had developed emergency evacuation procedures for the disabled.