WASHINGTON — Jim Langevin is used to finding workarounds.

“I’m pretty resilient. I adapt,” the former congressman said in a recent interview. “As someone with a disability, it’s what we do every day.”

When he first arrived at the Capitol in January 2001, old buildings and cramped offices created a hodgepodge of obstacles for the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.

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On the House floor, an adjustable lectern allowed Langevin to deliver speeches, and the Architect of the Capitol removed two seats to create a place for him to park his wheelchair. That spot became popular with other members who had temporary injuries or were using crutches or a wheelchair while recovering from surgery, Langevin recalled.

“Invariably, when they’d come to the House floor, they’d go right over to the spot where I was supposed to sit,” he said. “I would joke around with them and say, ‘Oh sure, now you’re after my handicap parking spot too.'”

“It’s funny because a lot of times, things that are made as ADA accommodations for maybe one individual, it’s really not about one individual. It’s about making it accessible for everyone,” Langevin said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Over the course of his 22-year career in Congress, the Rhode Island Democrat saw it become a slightly more accessible place, from House office buildings, to committee rooms, to the speaker’s rostrum.

But barriers most definitely persist. A 2023 report published by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights found 567 barriers to access across the campus.

“I’ve often said that I was the first quadriplegic in the Congress, but I most certainly will not be the last,” Langevin said. “I hope we will continue to make improvements to accessibility, both the big things and the small things.”

One long-awaited project could be finished as soon as this summer.

Included in the fiscal 2024 Legislative Branch appropriations law was $450,000 in funding for a new drop-off and pick-up zone for those with disabilities visiting the Capitol. Another $350,000 was set aside for a similar zone on the Senate side of the campus. Work to modify the curb and install new signage is slated to take place in the coming months.

It’s a small sum and a seemingly minor change, but for people with disabilities coming to the Hill, it could make a difference, Langevin said.

“It’s really vitally important. With all the security barriers, it’s not easy to get picked up and dropped off at the Capitol campus. And you don’t want to do it right in the middle of oncoming traffic,” Langevin said.

‘Not an afterthought’

According to Heather Ansley, chief policy officer at Paralyzed Veterans of America, arriving on the Hill has often been a source of stress for visitors with disabilities. The roads around the Capitol are often busy with traffic and security is tight. For people driving in, it can be hard to identify safe and legal places to temporarily park and let out passengers.

“Just having that designated area with accessible parking will help people to know that not only is there a safe place to do that, but that people with disabilities are welcome. That they’re not an afterthought,” Ansley said.

It sends a message, Ansley said, that people with disabilities “are just as welcome as anyone else to come in, meet with their legislators, talk about the issues that impact them, and that services and support are available to them.”

The new drop-off zone will be created from a small cutout on First Street Southeast, across from the Library of Congress. Further north on First Street, the Senate-side zone will be built at the intersection of Maryland Avenue Northeast, across from the Supreme Court.

Currently, a roundabout near the Garfield Monument, west of the Capitol, is one place visitors could be dropped off, according to information provided by the House Administration Committee. But the area is also used by tour buses and is at the bottom of a hill. Outside the Rayburn House Office Building, there’s a cab stand where vehicles can pull over, but lines of cars often form, making it less than ideal, particularly if a ramp needs to be lowered.

“The current ADA access to the Capitol I think is pretty inconvenient for a lot of individuals. There’s not an easy pull-in, pull-out area. It’s kind of convoluted getting in the building,” said Rep. Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

Bice also oversees efforts to modernize Congress as chair of the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee, including some projects to make the Capitol campus more accessible.

That new subpanel was launched last year to carry on the work of the now-defunct Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, or ModCom, which left a wide-ranging final report with more than 200 recommendations. Four of those were aimed at improving accessibility.

An ADA drop-off and pick-up zone was one. ModCom also recommended providing better information to the public about what security screening techniques people with disabilities can expect to encounter when visiting the Capitol. The committee urged the installation of additional automatic doors, and suggested training for House staff to help them update and maintain accessible websites.

With the installation of the new zones, the first two of those goals will be met, according to Washington Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, former ModCom chair and current subcommittee ranking member. The second two need more work.

“My hope is that implementation of these doesn’t take that many years — although we’ve been told some of the issues related to doorway accessibility may be challenging,” Kilmer said.

Other challenges lurk in the old, echoey buildings. According to Ansley, accessible bathrooms are still difficult to find throughout much of the Capitol complex. Mobility devices can’t always squeeze around tight corners in crammed offices, particularly on the House side.

The result, Ansley said, is that meetings between constituents with disabilities and members or staff are sometimes held in the hallways. And particularly if she’s visiting the Hill with a group of wheelchair users, Ansley said finding a place to eat in a Capitol cafeteria can be a struggle.

These barriers remain nearly 35 years after the ADA was first passed, prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities and aiming to ensure public accessibility. Congress later applied those provisions to itself through the Congressional Accountability Act.

“It’s not happening as fast as it could,” Ansley said.

But Ansley said an increasing number of lawmakers with disabilities have brought greater awareness. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and former Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., both use wheelchairs. And Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, who has a rare condition called progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, became the first member of Congress to deliver a speech from the House floor using an augmentative and alternative communication device, reigniting a larger conversation about accessibility in Congress, The 19th reported.

The mere fact that ModCom held a 2021 hearing on accessibility that produced tangible results is reason for optimism, Ansley said.

“This is the first phase. What I’ve been focused on as it relates to modernization of Congress has really been the recommendation pieces of this,” Bice said. “And so if it wasn’t a recommendation from the modernization select committee, then it may not be something that’s completely on our radar right now. But it doesn’t mean that isn’t something that we’ll look to do in the future.”

“I think that we’re taking sort of bites of the apple right now,” Bice said.

© 2024 CQ-Roll Call, Inc
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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