Chapter 5: Make the House Accessible for All Americans
The “People’s House” is a representative institution embodying diverse views, ideologies, and experiences. Elected to give voice to the people they represent, Members debate, deliberate, and compromise every day to deliver policies for the country. This process of transforming public opinion into public policy takes place in Member offices, committee hearings, and on the House floor. At each step, individuals can actively participate by meeting with their representatives and congressional staff, attending committee hearings, and observing floor action. Constituents who are unable to travel to Washington, D.C. still have many ways to participate in the process, whether it’s by mailing their representatives directly, or by watching committee hearings and floor activity via livestream services or C-SPAN.
While this model of public participation in the legislative process works for many engaged constituents, access to the legislative process is still a real challenge for many Americans. The U.S. Capitol is almost 200 years old. With its narrow hallways and steep winding steps, the physical barriers to access are many and vary across the complex. This presents hardships to individuals who use wheelchairs or other assistive walking devices. Following live committee hearings is impossible for the hard of hearing if no closed captioning is available. And individuals with vision impairment can’t access any information from most congressional websites.
The Capitol complex and our legislative branch need to be equally accessible for all Americans. Individuals with disabilities who wish to meet with their representatives and congressional staff, attend or watch committee hearings, and visit the House floor should have the same ease of access as individuals without disabilities. In addition, the right of equal access to Congress also applies to individuals who work in the Capitol complex or visit as tourists. A modern Congress is one that welcomes and accommodates every American.
“Modernizing Congress also means making the proceedings and functions of the House accessible to all Americans. The MODCOM resolution addresses the equal access challenges persons with disabilities face when working for, visiting, or interacting with Congress.”
Chair Derek Kilmer, March 10, 2020
Committee staff met with several offices to gather information on the current status of accessibility on Capitol Hill. From first-hand accounts of the challenges confronting staff with disabilities, to discussions with the Chief Administrative Officer’s (CAO) office on House website accessibility, it was clear that while good efforts are underway, there remains room for improvement. Consistent with the committee’s mission to make Congress work better for the American people, recommendations were developed to promote equal access to the Capitol complex.
The recommendations put forth by the Committee were developed with jurisdictional considerations in mind. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, for example, maintains jurisdiction over the Capitol, Senate and House office buildings, as well as the buildings and grounds of the Botanic Garden, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. Others such as the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the CAO, and the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) also manage aspects of accessibility. The Committee determined recommendations to encourage work already underway, as well recommendations to establish new accessibility requirements.
Overall, the reforms address some of the challenges persons with disabilities confront when interacting with, working for, or visiting Congress. The Committee required that a review of the Capitol complex be undertaken to determine these accessibility challenges. Staff and visitors with disabilities should be able to conduct business and visit their representatives in the Capitol without facing barriers to mobility. The Committee also recommended that all broadcasts of House proceedings, including committee hearings and floor activity, be made available in closed caption. This ensures that individuals with a hearing impairment can access congressional proceedings. Finally, the Committee recommended that congressional websites are accessible to all persons regardless of disability. Congress, like most institutions, has moved much of its operations online. But this virtual information is only useful if it can be accessed.
This chapter begins with a brief overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then reviews how the ADA’s requirements are reviewed, implemented, and enforced in Congress. A review of the Committee’s recommendations follows, along with a look at some of the additional work underway to expand accessibility on Capitol Hill.
disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services. The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and guarantees that people with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as other Americans. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act was passed to broaden the definition of disability, which had been narrowed by a series of Supreme Court decisions.
While the ADA does not cover the executive branch, it does cover Congress and other entities of the legislative branch. The OCWR is responsible for ensuring congressional offices and officers are ADA compliant. This includes each Member office of the House and Senate, in Washington D. C. as well as the district. The OCWR is also responsible for committees, the Capitol Police, and support agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and Architect of the Capitol, among others.
The OCWR is required to conduct biennial inspections of the legislative branch and report to Congress on compliance with the ADA. Individuals and offices can request ADA inspections, as well as file a charge of discrimination if they feel their rights under the ADA have been violated.
While Congress has made much progress in improved accessibility around the Capitol complex, significant barriers remain. The OCWR’s most recent report on ADA compliance throughout the legislative branch covers the 114th Congress and identified 2,568 barriers to access. Most of these barriers are in House and Senate office buildings and more than 80-percent of the barriers identified fell into three categories: multi-user restrooms, signage, and alarms.
Figure 5.1: Number of Barriers Identified by the OCWR
Source: Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Full Report available here.
The Architect of the Capitol provides annual updates to the OCWR on its progress removing identified barriers and improving accessibility in the Capitol complex. Once the AOC reports a barrier removed, a third-party consultant verifies that accessibility barriers have been remediated. According to the AOC’s 2019 update, accessibility barriers identified in each of the following sessions of Congress have been closed at the rates listed below:
Figure 5.2: Percentage of Accessibility Barriers Closed, per Congressional Session
Source: Architect of the Capital, 2019 Update. Full report here.
While some of these barriers are less complicated to resolve, others require major “engineered solutions.” For example, lowering a sign is quite different in scale than building a ramp or widening an entry way. The Committee took these realities into consideration in their conversation with the AOC and interest groups. Thus, in addition to the specific recommendations outlined below, the Committee maintains that an ongoing commitment to making the Capitol complex accessible in every way—big and small—is essential work on behalf of the American people.
The recommendations outlined in this chapter are consistent with the Committee’s mission to both modernize and make Congress work better on behalf of all American people. A modern Congress works for, and is accessible to, individuals with disabilities. The Committee recognizes that the Capitol complex includes historic buildings that present unique challenges when it comes to meeting modern accessibility standards, and these upgrades will require engineered solutions that will undoubtedly take time. Thus, the Committee supports immediate remedial action once barriers are identified.
Other corrective actions rely on technology that is widely available and extensively used outside of Congress. Making websites digitally accessible and providing real-time closed captioning, for example, are a matter of investing in and prioritizing technologies that equalize access. Although the ADA became law 30 years ago, Americans with disabilities continue to fight for equal access under the law. As one of the most visible “places of public accommodation” covered by the ADA, Congress needs fulfill its obligations so that all Americans are equally able to work for, access, or visit the U.S. Capitol and connect with their representatives at all stages of policy making.