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Adapting Congress to COVID-19: Remote Hearings Need to be Accessible

On one Wednesday in early June, the U.S. House of Representatives held four remote committee hearings covering topics from voting to emergency preparedness. For many working in the field of congressional reform, the transition to remote committee hearings was a resounding win. Not only do remote hearings help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they show a kind of flexibility and technical-prowess that is too often missing from the halls of the Capitol.

However, while we applaud committees for continuing to function in this uncertain time, we must not forget that simply streaming a hearing online does not necessarily make it accessible. Each of the four hearings that took place on June 3rd were hosted on the Cisco Webex Virtual Platform which, unlike Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, does not have built in closed-captioning capabilities.

While auditory impairments are far from the only access needs Congress must consider, the lack of closed-captioning embedded into the Webex platform highlights the ongoing difficulties that the public, witnesses, staff, and congressmembers with disabilities face when attempting to engage with the legislative branch. Congress has statutory obligations to meet when it comes to accessibility, but it should go further in considering the adaptations necessary for remote proceedings that the public, members of Congress, and staff need to meaningfully participate in the legislative process.

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Statutory Accessibility Requirements

While the term ‘accessibility’ often brings to mind physical access needs like wheelchair ramps and automatic doors, the transition away from the Capitol and onto the internet brings a host of other accessibility issues to bear. In fact, Congress (and all federal agencies) are required by law to meet accessibility standards in all of their electronic communications.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 “requires Federal agencies to ensure that members of the public with disabilities have comparable access to publicly-available information.” Section 508 specifically applies to electronic information and communications technology, which would cover any public hearing or meeting that Congress holds.

While Congress is not a federal agency, Sections 102 and 210 of the Congressional Accountability Act mandate that Congress comply with the federal accessibility requirements detailed in both the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively.

Integrating Accessibility from the Start

The Center for Talent Innovation found that only 21% of employees with disabilities disclose them to their HR department. Given the structural and cultural biases against persons with disabilities that inhibit self-reporting, Congress should not make content accessible only when notified that a staff member, witness, or congressmember has a disability. Such an approach is not only inefficient and ineffective, but it unfairly places the burden of notification on persons with disabilities.

Instead, Congress should integrate accessibility into its operations from day one. Congress is already required by law to meet certain accessibility standards, but to keep content accessible as operations move online, it must make accessibility a priority from the start when considering new remote platforms. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes, “It is much easier to create content that is accessible in the first place (bake it in), than to remediate content after the fact (bolt it on).”

While it is essential that Congress make operations accessible on the front end, there is no single platform or medium that will meet every person’s access needs. The Association for Talent Development writes that “Regardless of disability type, [accessibility needs] fall into these four major categories: auditory, visual, physical, and cognitive.” While captioning might help those with auditory impairments, it could overwhelm viewers with ADHD or anxiety.

As such, Congress needs to have a degree of flexibility in their operations—one that relies on technological and accessibility experts—to address novel access needs as they arise. This is not only important for members of the public who wish to view hearings and other online activities, but it is especially important for witnesses, staff, and lawmakers with disabilities. While members of the public attempting to access recorded hearings are often able to use their own devices to interact with the material after the hearing has occurred, witnesses, staff, and lawmakers must be able to participate in real time.

Embedding inclusion into the day-to-day operations of Congress, especially as it pivots online, will do two things: make content accessible to a broader cross-section of the general public; and create an environment that is more structurally and culturally accessible to persons with disabilities, opening the door for Congress to welcome more witnesses, staff, and lawmakers with disabilities down the road.

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