In advance of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress’s hearing about making the House more accessible to the disability community, I feel a responsibility to share some accessibility concerns on Capitol Hill that are often overlooked. Both physical and non-physical barriers effectively bar people with disabilities from the heart of our democracy.
Every two years, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights publishes a report about accessibility barriers on Capitol Hill. The most recent report revealed that the House and Senate Office Buildings combined had 2,319 accessibility barriers, some of which could have caused serious harm to people. While the quality and helpfulness of these reports improve every two years, they still fall short of providing a comprehensive look at accessibility on Capitol Hill. This is evidenced by the 111th Congress report which said that Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) inspections were only allocated funding for ¼ full-time employee. This is insufficient for inspecting a 460-acre campus and district offices. Because of this limitation, only a small portion of the Capitol Complex is inspected every year, and district offices across the country are not inspected at all. This leaves many questions about the accessibility of our democracy unanswered.
While physical barriers are examined in the biennial ADA inspection report, barriers for people with invisible disabilities remain unchecked. Most disabilities do not fit neatly into boxes and related accessibility barriers cannot be identified in a yearly inspection. The entire workplace culture must shift to be more open-minded to different ways of working and existing. This shift would not only improve accessibility on Capitol Hill but help lessen the stigma around disability.
Although I regard my intern experience as one of the most rewarding of my entire life, I constantly fought harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about my autism. Most people assumed that because I was able to work full time that my autism did not affect me. Those people would have been surprised to learn that I scored in the moderate to severe range of the Australian Scale for Asperger’s Syndrome and worked constantly behind the scenes to be able to function in an office. Yet, because I appeared articulate and charismatic, I was not considered an expert on a condition that I myself had.
Additionally, I would read outdated and harmful information about my disability in bill text, form letters, and on official congressional websites all the time. I saw these misconceptions as opportunities to politely insert correct information where it was wrong and kindly offer advice when it was requested. I consider these minuscule changes that I was entrusted with making as some of my proudest achievements in policymaking. Imagine the progress that Congress could make if it made itself truly accessible to all citizens, not just those willing to fight the system to enact change.
I spend much of my spare time talking to other autistic people about my internship experience and trying to convince them to pursue similar opportunities on Capitol Hill. It is a hard sell. People are hesitant to work somewhere that reduces them to a stereotype or may not take the accommodations that secure their human rights seriously. I will continue advocating for the inclusion and acceptance of autistic and disabled people on Capitol Hill because as more of us work in policymaking, it will be easier to enact change that impacts us as individuals as well as our communities. I hope that as Congress works to make its facilities and services accessible to all that stronger diversity and meaningful inclusion will follow.