Being a member of the minority party of the state House of Representatives isn’t the only obstacle that may keep Jennifer Longdon away from the speaker’s desk.
The presumptive Democratic member from Legislative District 24 made that observation at the foot of three steps leading up to the desk from the House floor. She uses a wheelchair, so those stairs render the dais inaccessible to her.
But the House is already moving quickly to change that.
Longdon, who was paralyzed in 2004 after a random, drive-by shooting, will presumably join the House in January. She and fellow Democrat Amish Shah still have the November general election to get through against Republican David Alger, Sr., but he is undeniably at a disadvantage in the reliably blue district.
Longdon is not the first lawmaker to have accessibility needs. Others have had temporary disabilities due to injury or illness, but she is the first to speak up about permanent challenges for herself and others who will come after her.
House staff and Speaker J.D. Mesnard have already begun the process of making her new workplace more accessible even as she continues to campaign.
It’s a process that is starting with Longdon, but does not end with her.
“This is an issue of making sure that every Arizonan can access their government,” she said. “That’s the people’s house.”
The House minority staff compiled a list of recommended changes and shared them with their counterparts in the majority and Mesnard.
The list includes improvements like automatic security doors and a portable ramp that would make the speaker’s desk accessible. Mesnard immediately took a tour to see the proposed fixes for himself, and he approved the list that same day, bypassing the House Administration Committee and directing House staff to move forward with the state Department of Administration.
Mesnard said this is certainly not an area he has any expertise in, but he could clearly see the House had to act.
“We’re going to do what we need to do and do it as quickly as possible,” he said, adding the goal is to have the changes completed before session begins in January.
There is not yet an estimate of how much the changes will cost as it is still early in the process.
Longdon said the speed with which the House addressed the changes has been gratifying.
She said the experience has made her hopeful of what she can accomplish beyond her own accessibility needs.
Accessibility is not a partisan issue, she said, and the swift recognition of that from staff on both sides has given her hope for the upcoming session.
“I don’t think anyone is deliberately going out of their way to hurt the disability community,” she said. “But I think that we’re not as understood or considered, and this is an opportunity [to change that].”
Some of the issues are evident as Longdon moves through the House. She zig-zags up a ramp that is too steep behind the hearing rooms. She remarks that people will always know where she is because of scuff marks left on doorways that are too narrow. She politely declines a security guard’s help when he gets up to open a heavy door leading to members’ offices.
Other challenges are more private.
Just one women’s bathroom stall in the entire building is wheelchair-accessible. The first-floor stall is perhaps three times bigger than the others, giving someone space to enter and maneuver with ease.
Other stalls throughout the building are standard in size and equipped with grab bars on each side. Longdon said those stalls are not up to modern accessibility standards. She can enter the stall, but the tight squeeze would leave her no room to move beyond that.
She said those stalls were likely designed with the best intentions but by someone who did not understand what it meant to be a wheelchair user. She encounters similar features that are technically accessible but not really effective in public buildings all the time, she said.
And she had a history with that particular ladies’ room, the one in the House basement. While attending a conference years ago, she broke her hand trying to get through the narrow entrance to the bathroom.
She spent the rest of the day at the conference, her first such experience at the House, with her hand bruised and bloodied.
Longdon led Democratic Chief of Staff Cynthia Aragon on her first tour of the building, taking the lead so Aragon could see for herself how Longdon moved from one area to the next.
Aragon noted there was no shortage of friendly people who offered to hold doors or help Longdon in some other way. But she said Longdon should not have to depend on the kindness of others to get around.
“That’s what accessibility should be,” Aragon said. “She needs to be able to move freely in this building just like any other member.”
Well-meaning people may not even recognize a particular accessibility challenge.
For example, a security guard at the members’ rear entrance to the House greeted Longdon as she went by his desk and assured her someone would always get the door for her.
The door’s weight was noted on the list of accessibility issues – it’s a heavy security door that cannot be opened automatically at the push of a button. But that’s not the only aspect of the back entrance that it makes it inaccessible. There is also a lip an inch or two high that Longdon said would prevent her from entering through that door because it would take three hands – one to hold the door and both hands to operate the chair with enough momentum to get over the lip.
Advocates who have visited the Capitol for years said these issues speak to a greater problem, one of access not just to physical spaces but to the political process.
Gina Schuh, founder of Accessible AZ, said visiting the Capitol can already be an intimidating experience for constituents, but for people like herself and Longdon who use wheelchairs, there’s an added barrier.
“People with disabilities, we tend to go places that are more accessible because we feel more welcome,” Schuh said. “Inaccessibility just doesn’t make you want to participate.”
Ann Monahan, board president of the Arizona Autism Coalition and former chair of the Arizona Association of Providers for People with Disabilities, said government facilities have to be able to accommodate people with disabilities if elected officials expect them to vote.
But she said civic engagement may be a hard sell when the disabilities association holds its robust day at the Capitol with 400 people and only four people using wheelchairs can sit in the House gallery.
Staffers are always accommodating, she said, but the building itself clearly is not meeting their needs when people with physical disabilities are relegated to overflow rooms.
“You want to offer dignity to people,” Monahan said. “And when they are unable to even do something as simple as going to the bathroom… it’s really, really challenging.”
The list of recommendations did not include an assessment of accessibility for the public or the men’s restrooms in the building.
Longdon had not yet toured the state Senate building, but Aragon said Senate staffers have already extended an invitation for her to do so.
Longdon said this is just the first step toward making the Capitol more inclusive to everyone, both physically and in the policies that lawmakers craft.
“We accommodate people who are coming temporarily. We integrate people who become part of a whole,” she said. “This is legacy work.”
View the complete list of recommended changes below.