Thirty years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 25 years after Congress decided to apply those standards to itself, significant advancements have been made in accessibility in and around the historic buildings. But challenges remain for people navigating Capitol Hill in person and in the digital space.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 26 percent of adults in the United States have some type of disability, but representation in Congress is far below that and the institution is still playing catch-up in providing accommodations mandated by the ADA for equitable access to daily life, as well as the government.
Rep. Brian Mast acknowledges that the Capitol and nearby office buildings are old and that historic places are simply harder to make accessible. But the combat veteran, who utilizes two prosthetic legs to get around, said the Architect of the Capitol and fellow lawmakers in oversight roles have done their best to make accommodations for people with mobility issues like him.
One of the first calls the Florida Republican got the morning after his election victory in 2016 was from Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees Capitol operations.
“He said, ‘Listen, we haven’t had somebody here with your injuries before. Tell me everything that you want to. How do you live? What can we do to help you?” Mast told CQ Roll Call.
Davis asked how fast Mast was able to walk, if he was ever in a wheelchair and other practical questions about how the incoming member of the House would need to move around and do his job.
Davis told CQ Roll Call that one priority was making sure that despite his freshman status, which usually means a far-flung office in the worst locations, Mast would be able to get to and from votes on time. He emphasized that a proactive stance and input from members themselves drive accommodations beyond just what the ADA mandates.
“All of those discussions happen on the front end with members who have accessibility issues. I don’t think that gets put out into the media how much, in the background, those concerns try to be addressed before there’s even a problem,” Davis said.
“They made a number of accommodations specifically for me,” Mast said.
Mast is among a committed group of fitness junkies in the House, and he pointed to a specific change made at the members’ gym to give him access.
“I use the gym every day and sometimes I use a wheelchair. … One of the things they did is they put a handicap door on the gym. They didn’t have a button on it previously that would open it automatically,” he said.
In a brief hallway interview, Davis shared what he knew about updates to accessibility around the Capitol campus, but stressed that lawmakers living and working with disabilities, including Mast, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., are the true experts on where issues remain.
One area in which advocates see room for improvement is expanding the ranks of those with disabilities navigating the halls of Congress.
“In order to raise awareness, even on the grounds of Congress, there needs to be more people elected to positions that are disabled, as well as more staff hired with disability; so there’s an equity issue there,” Angela Williams, CEO of Easterseals, an organization that provides services for people with disabilities, said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
There is no data available on how many people working on Capitol Hill identify as having a disability, despite a push to study the representation of demographic groups among staff in Congress and how they compare with demographics nationwide or in a state or district.
Williams would like to see a disability advisory council to help the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights and other entities within the legislative branch involved in accessibility think through issues and examine current barriers and ways to eliminate them.
“Part of it is having an awareness and having a conversation with people whose rights are actually being affected, so that they can be educated more thoroughly about what more they should be doing to make sure our Congress is accessible to all,” Williams said.
Two House panels are looking at how widely accommodations for people who are deaf or hard of hearing are used on Capitol Hill, in an effort to better understand what additional tools could be used and how to expand opportunities for those individuals.
House appropriators and the Modernization of Congress Committee included language in the yet-to-be-passed fiscal 2021 Legislative Branch spending bill requesting a report from the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services on how many interpreter requests have been processed each year. They are also seeking recommendations on what types of deaf and hard-of-hearing technological-assisted devices staff, interns, and members of the public require for use in the Capitol, and if increased funding for resources are needed.
The antiquated 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.
In a biennial report on ADA inspections by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights for the 114th Congress, released in 2019, more than 2,000 barriers to accessibility were identified, with multiuser restrooms, signage and drinking fountains among the most highly cited for compliance deficiencies. Soap dispensers that require two hands and bathroom doors that hang open were present in both the House and Senate at the time of the report.
In the Senate subway, the transportation barrier category was of particular concern in the report because there were no detectable warnings at the platform boarding edges for the subway system. These warnings are a distinctive surface pattern of raised domes detectable by a cane or a person’s feet to alert those with vision impairments they are nearing a surface edge, street crosswalk or hazardous drop.
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt said last week that he hopes the chamber meets the requirements set out by the ADA.
“I think, generally, we’re largely in compliance with the Disability Act and certainly should be and want to be,” the Missouri Republicans told CQ Roll Call in a brief hallway interview. “And I hope we are.”
Easterseals’ Williams said that compliance with the ADA isn’t a finish line to be crossed, but an ongoing process that every organization, business and the federal government needs to be striving toward.
“We will always be catching up when it comes to compliance,” she said. “So you never get to 100 percent. It’s always about continuous improvement.”
But Williams emphasized that continued striving to make Capitol Hill accessible also means continued investment in oversight, audits and making sure funds are directed to projects that improve access.
“The issues around cost to remediate the barriers for full access by people with disabilities, has been, and continues to be, an issue,” she said.
In recent years, there have been improvements made, both to physical infrastructure but also to enhance understanding of accessibility issues and ADA compliance around the Capitol, according to the House Administration Committee.
A Democratic committee aide who would speak only on background pointed to the Architect of the Capitol updating the Universal Accessibility Policy and Standards and expanded large print and braille offerings in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Changes have also been made for member access to daises in House hearing rooms, many of which required a step or provided narrow spaces to navigate.
The committee also touted the Rayburn Building’s new vertical lift, which Mast referenced to illustrate that while adapting an older building might not always be a swift process, it gets the job done.
“You have the lifts, the ‘bzzz,’ the very slow lifts,” said Mast, imitating the sound of the lift. “Well, they’re slow and inconvenient, but they are slow for a reason because they’re trying to make them stable for people. There’s an inconvenience to them, but they’re trying their best to make an accommodation so you can get down into the Rayburn foyer or into whatever place.”
“In my opinion, folks have done their best to try to make accommodation,” he added.
Although the ADA was enacted long before everyone had a smartphone in their pocket, rulings by the Justice Department and updates to the original law require web-based services be included in the reasonable accommodations under the ADA.
But there is less accountability for ensuring that websites, online forms and social media posts are compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers, which enable people who are blind or have low vision to interact with websites, apps and other digital platforms.
“The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights needs to ensure that the latest technologies are deployed with the internet services and the congressional websites to ensure access,” Williams said.
While a lawmaker or congressional office may ensure that the door to their office has an automatic opener or that there is space for a wheelchair user to maneuver to meet with staffers, websites that constituents, advocates and staff on Capitol Hill use to get important information may not meet accessibility standards.
The most recent biennial ADA inspection reports from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights are focused solely on barriers to movement, not barriers to accessing information, and there is no evaluation of digital compliance on Capitol Hill.
Williams would like to see more audits and public information about digital access to congressional resources and acceptance that online tools and resources hold the same value as accessibility in a physical space.
“We are now living in a digital world, and technology is key to everything,” she said.
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights did not respond to inquiries for this report.
House appropriators and the Modernization Committee are trying to increase accessibility of congressional websites, particularly in the fiscal 2021 Legislative Branch spending bill, which awaits floor action.
Report language accompanying the bill would require the House chief administrative officer to produce a report based on an audit of the web accessibility of member websites and “provide a plan that defines the scope, timeline, and cost estimates for all Member of Congress websites to be accessible for the disabled.”
The provision is part of a package of recommendations from the modernization panel, including making accessible full digital access to government digital properties, especially those made available by member offices, including websites, applications and electronic document retrieval programs.
The report will be issued to the House Administration Committee, among others. Staff from that panel told CQ Roll Call that several House websites were brought into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and that House.gov is expected to meet compliance this summer.
Social media is another place that has ample space for improvement and learning on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are diligent about using captions on Instagram story videos and other social media posts. But many tweets and Facebook posts from lawmakers don’t utilize accessibility tools that are built into those platforms, such as image descriptions that signal to someone using a screen reader what is pictured in the image a lawmaker is posting.
Ellyn Ferguson, Chris Marquette and Doug Sword contributed to this report.