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States Expand Access to Capitol Buildings

By Annie Miller  |  July 18, 2022

During a near-fatal crash in 2012, former military helicopter pilot David Ortiz sustained injuries that left him paralyzed from the waist down. But that didn’t keep him from his commitment to a lifetime of service.

When Ortiz was elected to represent Colorado House District 38 in 2020, one of his goals was to improve the lives of the disability community. “Who is going to know better than me, or those of us that live with a disability, what we need?” he says. Ortiz has spearheaded several state policies for veterans and people with mental and physical disabilities, including those increasing ballot accessprotecting against discrimination and reinforcing accessibility.

As Colorado’s first lawmaker known to use a wheelchair, Ortiz has also had to advocate for his own accommodations within the 130-year-old state Capitol building in Denver. “If the people’s house is not accessible,” he says, “then you’re saying you’re not a part of the people: ‘Let people interact with us on your behalf—but not you.’” This year for the first time, Ortiz was able to access the speaker’s podium in the House chamber after a lift was installed to let him preside over the room as his colleagues do.

After the installation, the lawmaker expressed his gratitude but stressed that many challenges remain. He still struggles to interact with his peers in the building and believes his ambitions for leadership are restricted as well. “How am I going to be whip if I can’t get everywhere in the chamber? How am I going to be a co-chair if I can’t get everywhere in the chamber? How am I going to be majority leader or speaker?” Ortiz says. “I’m not.”

Improvements ‘Long Overdue’

Ortiz isn’t the only one advocating for a modernization of state capitol buildings. Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, who also uses a wheelchair, says improvements are “long overdue” since some buildings are so far out of compliance with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. In response, his state and others, including North Dakota and Oregon, are streamlining, repairing and renewing their capitols. Connecticut is requiring a preliminary study of the accessibility of its Capitol, legislative office buildings and related facilities, while Minnesota is enhancing the digital accessibility of its Legislature. In compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1, Minnesota’s digital resources will accommodate blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these, with some arrangements made for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations.

It has been 32 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, making access to public properties a civil right. If construction of a government or public building began on or after March 15, 2012, the 2010 ADA standards also apply. This means that state laws, local building codes or similar ordinances require that public accommodations and commercial facilities meet or exceed minimum accessibility requirements. Therefore, it’s in officials’ interest to formulate creative solutions to “ensure the grounds and buildings provide access to all, while maintaining and preserving the historic fabric and character” of the structures.

Because state capitols are historic buildings, improvements that preserve original designs and integrity can be difficult and expensive. But “improvements” can simply  mean altering “paths of travel” to the restrooms, telephones and drinking fountains so they are accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those requiring wheelchairs. Other accommodations can include widening doorways and installing ramps as well as adding grab bars, accessible faucet controls or larger toilet seats in restrooms. Telephones and drinking fountains can also be readjusted to accessible heights. People with hearing impairments can benefit from amplification devices and text telephones along with assisted-listening loops, which allow amplified sound for hearing aids or provided headsets.

Ortiz says he has found that the disabled community is “always the last to be considered when it comes to policy and is always the first on the chopping block when it comes to what is going to be cut.” With state capitols undergoing renovations, people with disabilities will finally be able to exercise their right to equitable access to their representatives.

Annie Miller is an intern in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

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