Officials at Mount Vernon, President George Washington's homestead, have agreed to make $400,000 in alterations to bring the national landmark into full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a settlement announced Wednesday, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which owns, maintains, and operates the mansion and grounds, agreed to undertake a series of changes to make the tour experience more accessible for visitors in wheelchairs, as well as those who are sight or hearing impaired.
Among the required changes will be construction of a hardened surface walkway, a shallower entry ramp to the mansion, and removal of some objects that protrude from walls that might pose a hazard to blind visitors. In addition, all centerpiece films in the main theaters will include closed captioning.
Megan Dunn, associate vice president for human resources and chief ADA compliance officer at Mount Vernon, said the process was hard work but the organization was happy to comply.
“We really want to make Mount Vernon more accessible and a better experience for our disabled visitors,” she said.
Dunn said the issue of ADA compliance arose after a hearing-impaired visitor filed a complaint with the Justice Department that films shown at Mount Vernon were not closed captioned. A Justice Department compliance team arrived and produced a list of potential improvements.
“They were very supportive and understanding in terms of preserving the integrity of the historic area – the mansion in particular,” Dunn said. “The mansion itself has never been, and we hope will never have to be, altered in any fashion.”
At one time George Washington’s estate and farm covered 8,000 acres of land west of the Potomac River in Virginia. Today, the estate is roughly 500 acres, with 20 buildings, including the famous mansion. The grounds include 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799.
Mount Vernon attracts 1 million visitors a year.
Among other adjustments required under the agreement, Mount Vernon officials will provide sign language and oral interpreted tours for the hearing impaired and walk-in audio-described tours for blind visitors. Officials will also produce a comprehensive photographic display with accompanying text showing areas of the mansion that are not accessible by wheelchair.
“As the nation celebrates the 20th anniversary of the ADA, we commend the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for its cooperation and for its innovative efforts to improve access to this historic estate … for individuals with disabilities,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
“This agreement shows that two lofty goals – providing access for individuals with disabilities, and preserving and understanding our nation’s historic past – are not in conflict,” he said.
Dunn said the alterations should be complete by spring 2011.