Access for disabled to be examined

In recognition of the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the House Administration Committee will meet tomorrow to discuss whether the House is genuinely accessible to the disabled and to examine ways to improve emergency preparedness for people with special needs.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for committee Chairman Robert Ney (R-Ohio), said, “The chairman has felt for some time that the committee should review the progress that has been made in the House-complex buildings with regard to improving access and safety for the disabled, as well as to look ahead at what can be done to further improve things.”

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who uses a wheelchair, will testify on the first of three panels and said he will address both what has already been done and what still needs to be done immediately.

“There are only two ways in and out of the chamber,” Langevin told The Hill. “There is no quick way out of there.”

While temporary pullout ramps could help in an emergency, a permanent ramp opposite the Speaker’s rostrum would be better, he said.

“I have trouble believing some kind of temporary solution is going to work when seconds count,” he said. “I’ve seen how quickly people leave when the alarm bells sound.”

He said that although he is aware that the elevator next to the Speaker’s lobby works during an emergency most visitors and staff with disabilities or even members who are temporarily disabled may not. He intends to ask the committee about the costs and benefits of shutting off the elevators during a non-fire-related emergency, he said.

“There needs to be better marking [of emergency exits] and education to visitors,” Langevin added.

When there is no emergency, the House side of the Capitol campus is “fairly good,” he said, despite the lack of exits in the chamber. Committee rooms are the least accessible part of the House side for a member with a disability, he said, but he added that the Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member, has made proper accommodations.

He praised Ney for going “above and beyond” any requests for accommodation.

The second panel of the hearing will be composed of Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, Chief Administration Officer Jay Eagen and Capitol Police Chief Terrence Gainer, who will discuss various improvements and projects that they are working on to improve the safety of visitors and staff members with special needs.

The final panel will be composed of several members considered experts in the field of accessibility.

Jeffrey Rosen, general counsel and director of policy for the National Council on Disability, who was consulted about the hearing but will not testify, told The Hill in a previous interview that even attending a congressional hearing or visiting a member can be cumbersome for people with certain disabilities.

Rosen, who is deaf, said some committees do not let him bring his interpreter to hearings but required him to liaise with them about it

The hearing tomorrow will include several services for the disabled, including an American Sign Language interpreter, a Close Vision interpreter and real-time captioning service.  

“We cannot have the freedom of an impromptu meeting [with a member], the meeting must be arranged in advance,” Rosen said.

According to Susan Irby, a spokeswoman for the Senate Rules Committee, “Senator Lott is constantly striving to address the concerns of the ADA to enable everyone to independently access the Senate building.”

Irby said a member of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) Rules Committee staff meets monthly with the Senate superintendent and members of the architect of the Capitol’s staff to address issues with the Senate buildings including issues with ADA access.

She added that several programs are ongoing to accommodate individuals with disabilities including the further installation of brail “way-finding signs” outside of offices and facilities and an interpreter service for the sight- and hearing-impaired through the Senate sergeant at arms.