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Capitol Violates Disabilities Law

Office of Compliance Evaluation Details Safety Hazards, Office Tensions

The sidewalks surrounding all three House office buildings are overwhelmingly not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a vivid example of the safety hazards and office tensions outlined in the Office of Compliance’s annual report being released today.

In its State of the Congressional Workplace report for fiscal 2011, the OOC portrays a legislative branch workforce still in need of the oversight the 17-year agency provides under the Congressional Accountability Act’s mandate.

The report also makes the case for why the OOC needs additional resources on top of its $3.8 million budget to ensure that Congressional offices and agencies are meeting basic workplace standards.

Addressing sidewalk noncompliance is just one example of what the agency might do if it had more money and manpower to inspect the Capitol complex, the OOC contends.

During the 111th Congress, the OOC evaluated pathways around the Cannon, Rayburn and Longworth House office buildings and found 154 access barriers for individuals with disabilities. Of the 30 curb ramps that help people in wheelchairs navigate between streets and sidewalks, 93 percent were not in ADA compliance.

The ADA, as it applies to Congress under the Congressional Accountability Act, requires the OOC to conduct inspections, identify violations and offer solutions for fixing problems. The Architect of the Capitol is responsible for addressing the violations.

Neither office could confirm whether these sidewalks were constructed before or after 1995, the year Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act and bound the legislative branch to ADA standards.

However, an earlier OOC report noted that 400 curb ramps were installed from 1999 to 2001. Reports issued in 2007 and 2009 also indicated that inspectors were seeing more new barriers being installed.

In another signal that many of the violations were likely put in place more recently, the security barriers erected after 9/11 also required sidewalk work.

“The unfortunate thing about 9/11 and all security concerns is it literally crashes right into access,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “And [people] are probably are not surprised that security trumps access.”

The OOC also did a random survey of restrooms in each of the House and Senate office buildings and in the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building. None were in ADA compliance.

In the report, the OOC said all these violations could have been prevented if it had more full-time inspectors to oversee the construction phases all the way through and if the AOC consistently approached the OOC for education and expertise. Taking advantage of OOC resources could even save the AOC time and money down the road, the office contends.

“There have been a number of instances where construction has been completed … [that] doesn’t comply with ADA requirements,” OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth said. “We say, ‘You have to fix it.’ … [And] they end up having to pay twice and they may have to swallow the extra cost.”

In a written response to Roll Call, AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki did not say why the problems persist but defended the AOC’s record of commitment to complying with the ADA: “The level of accessibility on the Capitol campus has never been higher.”

She provided 16 examples of AOC initiatives, including the installation of ADA-compliant ramps in Rayburn and Longworth and replacement of “more than 8,100 square yards of sidewalk across the Capitol campus over the past two years to enhance accessibility and safety.”

Malecki did not offer a timeline for when the AOC would address the specific concerns outlined in the OOC’s report or whether it would appeal to appropriators for the necessary funds to do so.

Six-term Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, said that he has been pleased with the AOC’s efforts to improve accessibility on Capitol Hill but that he’d be speaking with stakeholders to address the issues outlined in the OOC report.

“Congress should be a model in all areas of ADA compliance, and I am going to continue to work to ensure the Capitol complex meets and exceeds the goals whenever and wherever possible,” Langevin told Roll Call.

Workplace Complaints Continue

In addition to health and safety inspections, the OOC enforces discrimination-free work environments for select legislative branch agencies. The OOC report for fiscal 2011 shows that tensions persist in many of the offices it oversees.

As in the past, the most common alleged violation in fiscal 2011 related to discrimination and harassment based on race, sex, age and disability. The number was higher in fiscal 2011: 196 alleged violations. In fiscal 2010, that number was 168, and in fiscal 2009, it was 136.

Also as in previous years, complaints from agencies occurred in numbers disproportionate to those from Congressional offices. Of the 142 formal complaints filed with the OOC in fiscal 2011, just 13 originated in the House and two began in the Senate.

OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler told Roll Call that there were a few reasons to explain the discrepancies.

As for why the number of complaints was rising, “they could mean a lot of things,” including a lack of education and communication, she said. Budget cuts could also be a factor, where “practices and policies have to change to incorporate these cuts … and that may result in a perspective of things being unfair,” Chrisler said.

Fewer complaints from Congressional offices, Chrisler continued, could have to do with the transient nature of those jobs as compared with those in agencies.

“A Member’s office staff may accept certain things because they are only going to be there for a year or two and may not feel the need to complain,” she said. “That may not be the view of someone who has vested 20, 30 years on the job and it isn’t as easy for them to just walk away.”

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