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Increased accessibility on Capitol Hill should be a priority, not a joke

Capitol Hill should serve as a standard-bearer and dignified mark of access and inclusion

The Capitol dome is lit by the morning sun on March 14, 2022.
The Capitol dome is lit by the morning sun on March 14, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last week, Roll Call published a “Capitol stair lift” cartoon illustrating members of Congress utilizing a chair lift and mobility aids. It featured a flippant depiction of the United States Senate as a “Senate Assisted Legislative Facility.” 

The cartoon was ableist and careless. Regardless of its intent surrounding a wider public discussion about the age and critical faculties of members of Congress, the cartoon implies that disability and the use of mobility aids impede one’s ability to effectively legislate and serve the American people. It perpetuates harmful misconceptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do and reflects a reckless attitude that increasing accessibility in our nation’s Capitol is embarrassing or laughable. 

The disability community was quick to call out the indignity of this cartoon. For members of the congressional staff community, it also felt like yet another personal punch to the gut. Staffers with disabilities are all too familiar with the challenges of navigating spaces that were not originally designed for us, but we still show up to work every day to serve our constituents. Nevertheless, to see an accessible workplace mockingly depicted as an assisted living facility reminded us that many non-disabled people view us as second-class citizens who are incapable of living and working independently. And the cartoon’s publication and fallout has highlighted exactly why we recently formed the Disabled Congressional Staff Association.

The Disabled Congressional Staff Association was initially formed in late 2022 under the sponsorship of Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., with support from Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. We are an official, nonpartisan, bicameral congressional staff organization whose mission is to advance the interests of current and prospective disabled staffers and the disability community in general. As a nascent body that represents congressional staffers with disabilities with a wide range of professional and personal experiences, we feel that it is critical to call out this kind of casual ableism, which sets back the progress that many members of Congress, including our bosses, fight for every single day. 

Though the cartoon reinforces harmful attitudes about the capabilities of people in our community, it did draw attention to an important issue: the accessibility of the Capitol complex for members of Congress, staff and constituents is woefully inadequate. The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights’ Americans with Disabilities Act biennial inspection reports detail as many as thousands of barriers: a report from the 114th Congress listed over 2,500 barriers, though this appears to be improving. The Congressional Accountability Act, which became law in 1995 and has been subsequently amended, applies the ADA’s rights and protections against discrimination in the provision of public services and accommodations to the legislative branch, requiring, per the OCWR, that “employing offices make their services, programs, and activities for the public, as well as the facilities where these services, programs, and activities are provided, accessible to individuals with disabilities.” Such individuals also include legislative branch employees. We should be working to improve accessibility, not mocking it.

Furthermore, we don’t know how many staffers with disabilities work on Capitol Hill, in part because the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative continues to exclude an optional question on disability status in its annual survey. It does, however, ask questions regarding other protected classes, including  race, gender and sexual orientation (though this question is voluntary). This is in contrast to the House of Representatives, where the Office of Diversity and Inclusion does collect this information on a voluntary basis. For example, in 2021, 9.2 percent of 5,087 respondents to the survey identified as having a disability. While we understand that there are sensitivities regarding what information can or should be disclosed, it is difficult to make the appropriate changes in terms of access, accommodations and inclusion when staff with disabilities are essentially nonexistent on paper. 

In both the House and Senate, there are many staffers who continuously deal with ableist attitudes, who struggle to get accommodations in a timely manner and who are searching for community. That is why we formed the DCSA. We face a lot of challenges, as employees, as congressional staff working on behalf of our constituents — millions of whom also are disabled — and as Americans. Capitol Hill and Congress should serve as a standard-bearer and dignified mark of access and inclusion, not as the punchline of a joke that makes the lives of disabled Americans more difficult.

There’s a lot of work to be done. We are a young organization and just getting started, but we look forward to amplifying and collaborating with our colleagues and partners to address the concerns and challenges that come our way. When Congress — our workplace — is more representative of Americans and responsive to their everyday needs, the whole nation will be better for it.

Adam Veale is the communications director for the Disabled Congressional Staff Association, which was formed in May of 2022. Any person who is employed by the United States Congress or who serves as an intern or fellow in the United States Congress, including the Library of Congress, is eligible for general membership. To learn more about membership, email disabledstaffers@gmail.com or follow @disabledCSA on social media.

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