After 20 Years, Congress Still Poses Barriers

Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:59pm

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.

[IMGCAP(1)]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.

But the Capitol complex still falls short of offering full accessibility, according to a December 2009 biennial inspection and a June annual report from the Office of Compliance.

The reports show Braille signage lacking throughout the complex, particularly on the Senate side. Some curb cuts around the Capitol complex lie off marked crosswalks. The Capitol’s north portico ramp, curb cuts on the north side of the building and several other slopes are too steep.

Rep. Donna Edwards got a temporary glimpse at these challenges when she injured her knee falling down the Capitol’s interior marble steps two months ago.

First in a wheelchair, then on crutches, the Maryland Democrat found certain elevators in the Cannon House Office Building and steep ramps particularly difficult to navigate.

“It was a really important reminder of how we need to pay attention to access and how sometimes the simplest things can be complicated,” she said.

The antique Capitol complex is replete with bulky doors and narrow hallways. Dozens of rooms, including many public restrooms, have doors too heavy to be ADA-compliant and have no push-button entry.

There is also much to be done in the way of emergency preparedness, the reports found. Emergency-trained employees, visual alarms and amenable staging areas where disabled visitors can huddle before being evacuated are still not fully implemented.

The Office of Compliance also urged widespread adoption of software and technology for vision or hearing impaired people.

Still, access is but a means to an end — having people with disabilities on the Hill.

“The area that we could have most improvement is the hiring of people with disabilities,” Coelho, an epileptic, said. “It’s the one last barrier that people with disabilities face. It’s true in society in general, but it’s a real problem on the Hill.”

Both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have instituted diversity hiring initiatives that include employing people with disabilities, and Members such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) have made it a point to hire people with disabilities.

But it’s nearly impossible to obtain a tally of how many disabled people work on the Hill, nor is there a staff association for them.

The tally is even more paltry among Members. Coelho is active in the new Disability Power & Pride Political Action Committee, which aims to raise money for candidates with disabilities. A fundraiser for Langevin last Monday netted nearly $10,000, Coelho said.

“People with disabilities haven’t been encouraged to run,” Coelho said. “Once that starts happening, more people will run and create the opportunities.”

If so, the PAC could help bring fruition to one of Langevin’s favorite quotations: “I may be the first quadriplegic Member of Congress, but I most certainly will not be the last.”