Disabled decry lack of progress on safety

An Office of Compliance (OoC) public-safety report, which has yet to be released to the public, details many areas where the Capitol can improve emergency egress for people with disabilities, but some members of advocacy groups for the disabled are concerned about what they view as a lack of progress in addressing the problems.

“The OoC hosted a general discussion with representatives of disability organizations, which [the National Council on Disability] participated in,” said Jeff Rosen, the general counsel for the National Council on Disability (NCD).

“In my view, this general survey was not nearly sufficient for what is required. … I believe that this exclusion of people with disabilities as an integral part of the process results in the problem being continually studied and commented on, with very little outcomes to show for it.”

The public biennial report on occupational-safety hazards for the 108th Congress pointed out multiple problems related to the evacuation of the Capitol and surrounding buildings in emergency situations. For instance, the report said that some rescue areas are still in the wrong places, that a lack of signs means people could head in the wrong direction, and that some congressional office buildings lack alternative exits. The Hill viewed a heavily redacted draft of the report last month.

“Every year we keep unearthing the same old information,” Rosen said, adding that the OoC does not have the resources to follow up on many of the problems and that many of the problems in the 2005 report were cited in the 2002 public-access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“The OoC’s role in the inspection area is mainly that of an oversight body. We are statutorily charged with finding and reporting violations and identifying the office responsible for fixing the problem. The identified office has the responsibility to correct the problem,” according to a spokesperson at the OoC.

The OoC expects the 2005 version of the ADA report to be released in November. While the report does not cover Capitol complex safety hazards exclusively, the OoC indicated in a previous interview that the 2005 ADA report would reflect some of the problems outlined in the safety report.

According to Brian Walsh, a spokesman for House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), his boss believes that several of the issues cited at a hearing this summer and in previous reports have been corrected.

“Chairman Ney remains very committed to improving access and strengthening evacuation procedures for the disabled,” Walsh said. “Already, a new elevator in the Capitol has been opened to improve access for those with special needs, and we have improved and are continuing to improve the sidewalk” next to the Cannon Building.

Walsh added that committee staff members have met with representatives from disability advocacy groups several times since the July hearing.

Hilary Styron, director of the emergency-preparedness initiative at the National Organization on Disability (NOD), testified at this summer’s hearing. She told The Hill in a previous interview that she met and talked with the House Administration Committee staff twice after the hearing, once in August and once in October.

“The members of the committee are very committed to moving things forward,” she said.

Styron expressed frustration, however, that during a recent meeting with the Disability Caucus “briefings have not been fully accessible and the speakers have been known to cancel their appearance or walk out.”

Access to committee rooms has also been frequently cited in the reports as a difficulty for people with disabilities.

The Architect of the Capitol, the primary agency charged with fixing problems in the campus buildings, could not be reached for comment.   

Problems such as proper signage to direct people with disabilities to accessible exits remain. More specifically, the “lack of adequate signage to direct people with disabilities to accessible building features and paths of travel including areas of rescue assistance in the event of an emergency” has been cited as a problem since the 106th Congress.

The 2005 report also notes that the “places of refuge” in the Capitol and the Longworth House Office Building “carry [a] greater risk than areas that are more protected because the chimney effect of heat and toxic gases could rapidly overwhelm employees waiting for assistance.”

Some of the problems identified by the OoC stem from the design of the old buildings. The Capitol and the Russell and Cannon buildings were built before 1911 and have few exit routes for people with disabilities.