Democratic Participation and the Legislative Accessibility Act
Testimony given by Amber Smock, Director of Advocacy, Access Living on 3/23/22
Thank you to the Illinois House Executive Committee for allowing me to testify today on SB 180. Many thanks to Representative Williams for her leadership for people with disabilities. My name is Amber Smock and I am the Director of Advocacy for Access Living. Access Living is a disability rights and services organization based in Chicago; we are part of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living, known as INCIL.
For more than 40 years, as an organization led by people with disabilities, we have been privileged to support thousands of people with disabilities to attend and testify at Illinois legislative committee hearings both in Springfield and Chicago, as well as to observe floor sessions. Even with the pandemic shift to virtual legislative hearings and meetings, Illinoisans with disabilities have remained eager to engage with all of you because we know that what you do affects 2.3 million of us—the 23% of Illinoisans who have disabilities of all kinds.
When I first became involved with legislative advocacy in 2010, as a person with a disability myself, I was struck by the inaccessibility of the Capitol complex in terms of navigating the buildings and participating in committee hearings. Although efforts have been made to make the Capitol complex minimally physically accessible, it’s still tough for many people to freely move around the Capitol, not to mention using the restroom. Many of you will be very familiar with the challenges posed by small elevators and tiny mezzanine spaces. Communication access can also be very challenging for anyone who has trouble seeing, hearing or speaking. The current state of affairs is puzzling since Title II of the ADA applies to state government, which means that public access needs to be in place and updated regularly.
Right now, based on the General Assembly website, it’s hard to know who the public should contact for reasonable accommodations at hearings and floor sessions. The website itself is difficult for screen readers to use, and the ADA button on the home page only leads to a page that says digital accessibility updates will happen starting in 2008. Even in this virtual era, captions are not made automatically available on Zoom, and ASL interpreters for floor proceedings are rare. Consistent accessibility requires a watchful eye.
There is a big difference between basic ADA compliance, and full welcoming access for all Illinoisans. Experienced disability advocates have long said that the ADA is a floor, not a ceiling; since its passage over thirty years ago, a large body of regulations have been established for minimum compliance. However, the best and most accessible environments are created through good coordination and through universal design, which relies on collaboration between users of a space and the people responsible for administering the space. This brings us to the Legislative Accessibility Act. We need a process, a clear, deliberate, collaborative process, to make this work.
As an immediate priority, it is critical that the General Assembly website offer a more effective reasonable accommodation button directly from its home page. Not counting Illinois, 23 of 50 states have this kind of process on their legislative websites. The information and processes vary, but this typically includes a contact for reasonable accommodation requests and an overview of the status of the website’s accessibility.
In order to field reasonable accommodation requests, designated point persons for each chamber are necessary. Although Access Living has had access assistance from many staffers and legislators over the years, “winging it” is no substitute for a well-coordinated, neutral, efficient disability access team. People with disabilities don’t necessarily want “help”; we want access.
Longer term, the Legislative Accessibility Act will create a working group to coordinate and phase in needed accessibility improvements from a holistic perspective. The legislative reasonable accommodations persons should be part of this, as well as legislative staff point persons responsible for technology access. The Architect of the Capitol, Andrea Aggertt, of course is responsible for the physical complex; Access Living recently had a wonderful conversation with her where she shared about access components in the upcoming Capitol complex renovation. As it happens, college campus disability accessibility was the focus of her thesis, and we’re excited that Ms. Aggertt is also very interested in holistic access.
The working group does allow room for legislative leadership to appoint disability access subject matter experts, and that was reflected in Senate Amendment 1. We are very lucky to live in a state where many people have experience with disability support services, architectural access, and digital access. In fact, some of our disability access experts are nationally renowned. Let’s use that Illinois talent in the working group.
There is absolutely no reason why the Illinois legislature cannot be a national leader in lawmaking that is accessible for people with disabilities. The time for real change is now, given the discussion on physical access at the Capitol, talks with the Clerks’ offices, and the availability of digital and video access expertise in Illinois. However, we need coordination and clarity, and through this bill, we hope you will ensure that those 23% of us with disabilities will be just as much a part of our state’s democracy as any one else. Thank you.