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Congress Improves Access for Disabled

Disabled visitors and staffers now have ways to evacuate Congressional offices, after years of living with insufficient exits and undeveloped plans, according to a new report on Congressional compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The report, written by the Office of Compliance, examines the accessibility and emergency procedures of the Capitol and all House and Senate office buildings. Its findings are mostly positive, citing a vast improvement in the accessibility of exits, committee hearings and individual offices.

The improvements were made after a report on the 108th Congress outlined the lack of a workable emergency procedure for most Congressional buildings, leaving disabled visitors without a way to safely evacuate. Although some of the recommendations the OOC made are not required by the ADA, especially for Congress’ historic buildings, the Architect of the Capitol and the Capitol Police worked quickly to correct any deficiencies, said Kate Tapley, an OOC senior attorney who was the primary author of the report.

And this time around, some improvements were made within days of an inspection, she said.

“It was pretty amazing how quickly that happened and how cooperative this inspection was,” she said. “It was not adversarial at all.”

The report, released this week, outlined inspections performed during the 109th Congress, and some of the report’s recommended improvements already have been made. Most focused on the need for more visual alarms, Braille exit signs and accessible sidewalks.

Making such historic buildings accessible to those with disabilities is difficult, Tapley said, because the applicable laws weren’t in place when the structures were built. And while preserving their historic value is important, Congressional buildings also are very public and need to reflect that.

“Some of these buildings are kind of like mazes,” Tapley said. “If you can’t see the stairs [and] if you can’t see the exit signs, you don’t know where to go.”

OOC officials also highlighted the lack of visual alarms in the Senate’s Hart Building and expressed disappointment that the AOC doesn’t plan to request funds for their purchase until 2011. But such upgrades are completed as part of larger projects, said AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki. The visual alarms will be included in a Hart Building Fire Alarm System Replacement Project that will cost almost $16 million.

Still, in the past few years, many improvements have been made, she said.

“Over the past several years, the level of safety throughout the Capitol complex has been continuously improving in an effort to bring our facilities up-to-date with modern codes,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Included in that commitment are efforts to make the U.S. Capitol and other buildings accessible to all.”

That includes modernizing bathrooms, removing revolving doors, building ramps and installing Braille signage, Malecki said. Future improvements are outlined in the report, such as installing two-way communication devices in evacuation “staging areas” and replacing drinking fountains that cannot be detected at floor level by someone with a cane. Projects range in cost from thousands to millions of dollars.

But it’s the development of an evacuation plan for the disabled public that marks one of the biggest changes for Congressional buildings. While such plans varied from building to building before, now Capitol Police officers are trained to use elevators in emergencies to evacuate those who otherwise can’t quickly exit the building. Although the number of officers trained to do this wasn’t available at press time, Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the department works with individual Congressional offices to ensure that any mobility-impaired staffers know where to go. ADA-compliant signs throughout the buildings direct disabled visitors to the staging area where officers will conduct the evacuation.

This focus on evacuation procedures is a relatively new development, and it was pushed in the OOC’s 2005 ADA report. The OOC has written Congressional ADA reports since it was founded in 1995, but after its first assessment, officials simply checked up on the previous report’s recommendations. However, heightened concerns about terrorist attacks, development of new technologies and a longer-living public changed some expectations and needs for disabled access. So for their 2005 report on the 108th Congress, OOC officials brought in experts, worked with the United States Access Board and did their investigations from scratch.

This newest report is the first formal check-up on the recommendations put out in 2005. Progress was not only reflected in the new report, Tapley said, but in the number of complaints filed. During the 108th Congress, the OOC received one formal complaint and several informal complaints about access for the disabled (all were resolved). In the 109th, no complaints were received at all.

It all reflects the vast improvements made since the OOC’s first ADA report in 1995, Tapley said.

“We’ve come a long way in 10 years,” she said.

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