WASHINGTON – Many employees are returning to Capitol Hill and official visitors are not far away, but the return to offices raises questions about gaps in physical and digital accessibility in Congress for employees, lobbyists, voters, and lawmakers with disabilities.
With historic buildings and the slow adoption of technology, Congress still has a long way to go to be accessible not just in physical space but online where so much business has been done over the past year.
The U.S. House of Representatives Special Committee for the Modernization of Congress recently held a hearing on the subject to review three recommendations from the 116th Congressional body to improve website access, subtitling, and the investigation of physical barriers on the Capitol campus to follow .
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Rep. Jim Langevin, DR.I., co-chair of the bipartisan Disability Caucus and the first quadriplegic to serve in the House of Representatives, says educating and raising awareness among Hill employees goes a long way toward improving access and human dignity could work with disabilities and visit the Capitol.
While there is a long list of physical changes to office buildings, it comes with a jumble of jurisdiction, funding, and work orders.
But training personal office, district, and committee aides about accessibility and disabled rights and resources could be an effective way to improve access and limit the inconvenient, disrespectful, and marginalized treatment of people with disabilities on Capitol Hill.
Phoebe Ball, who serves as the disability policy advisor to the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, described “barriers to hiring,” including watching staff gawk as she approached them, a wheelchair user.
“I have sometimes been greeted with panic, apparent discomfort and occasional condescension by Congress officials,” Ball told the committee at a May 27 hearing. “Whether intentional or unintentional, these barriers are unacceptable and some basic disability awareness training can help. as long as the training does not include disability simulations that can reinforce stereotypes. “
Langevin stressed that staff without knowledge of disability and accessibility resources cannot fully engage voters, whether they are touring the Capitol or raising concerns on a political issue.
“Many of the in-house staff are simply not familiar with disability rights or accessibility services and procedures. By requiring employees to provide accessibility training, we can help press staff make communications accessible, enable administrative staff to properly handle internal and external accommodation requests, and ensure employees with disabilities know where to find accommodation can apply without fear of having an impact on the job, ”Langevin testified in the same hearing.
Security clearance is an issue that Heather Ansley, assistant director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America, brought before the modernization panel.
“Congress staff should also be trained on how to deal with people who do not use language to communicate or who appear to behave atypically,” she told the committee.
While the rapid shift to remote working, virtual meetings, and digital broadcasts of Congressional actions during the coronavirus pandemic accelerated some much-needed technological advances on Capitol Hill, there are still significant gaps in the accessibility of these online tools.
While physical barriers and ADA compliance are checked regularly, there is much less responsibility to take on ensuring that websites, online forms, and social media posts are compatible with assistive technologies, such as screen readers, that enable blind or visually impaired people to interact with websites, apps and other digital platforms.
While the ADA was enacted before smartphones were ubiquitous, Justice Department decisions and updates to the original law require that web-based services be included in reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, said that while the changes made during the pandemic made Congress more accessible in some ways, they also revealed a gap between minimum standards and what is truly fair.
“Given that the pandemic has accelerated society’s transition from physical to virtual, COVID has also brought digital disability into significant relief,” Brewer told the panel.
Langevin and chairman of modernization, Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Both admitted that any digital broadcast that could bring the procedures to a wider audience would not be accessible to the deaf community without subtitles or an interpreter.
The modernization committee’s virtual hearing on May 27th included subtitles.
Brewer praised the panel for recommending that all in-house websites be checked for accessibility standards, but also stressed that congressional documents should be published in accessible formats.
“We are now seeing progress through innovation, driven by necessity. People with disabilities do not want to lose this virtual access, which opened new doors during these difficult times, ”says Brewer.
The Capitol complex is crammed with bulky doors and narrow hallways.
Dozens of rooms, including many public toilets, have doors that are too heavy to be ADA-compliant or have narrow double-leaf doors and no push-button access.
According to John Uelmen, General Counsel of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, his agency’s latest accessibility audit found 1,632 barriers to access in residential buildings, 447 of which were in member offices.
While observing a barrier does not necessarily mean a violation of the ADA, Congress allows considerable leeway in complying with the 31-year-old law. The OCWR lacks enforcement and the tangled web of jurisdictions in the legislature dispels accountability.
Uelmen told the committee that the problems in the member offices could easily be resolved by moving furniture, putting materials within easy reach, or keeping both sides of a double-leaf door open.
Ansely cited situations where veterans with power wheelchairs don’t fit in an office or conference room and end up meeting in a hallway.
“Now we’ve all had hall meetings when you’ve been on Capitol Hill. But if that’s your standard because you literally can’t come to the office to find your way around it is a hassle, especially for a woman who has served her country and has a disability as a result, ”said Ansely.
Another 532 barriers were found in multi-use toilets throughout the home, where sinks and dispensers need to be adjusted to the correct height and door handles added. However, some need to be completely reconfigured to be accessible.
The audit completed last year is not available on the OCWR website, where the latest biennial inspection report on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance is from the 114th Congress.
Uelmen proposed the creation of an ADA coordinator position in the House of Representatives to facilitate the Chamber’s efforts to achieve ADA compliance.
These efforts are currently being carried out by nearly half a dozen different offices and agencies and are not well coordinated.
He suggested that the position would work alongside and complement the newly created Employee Representation Office and the Diversity and Inclusion Office.
The Senate does not have a committee that deals with the affairs of the Chamber, like the House Modernization Panel.
That leaves a large part of the supervision to the rules of procedure or appropriations committees, each with many other items on the agenda.
But a major Senate hazard identified during an earlier Capitol audit has improved in recent years. The Senate U-Bahn, for which there were no recognizable warnings at the edge of the platform, now has structured warning strips for the visually impaired and acoustic announcements about closing the car doors.
There is no data on how many people who work on Capitol Hill have a disability, despite researching the representation of demographics among staff in Congress and how they compare to demographics across the country or in a state or district.
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