By Moyra Williams Schauffler / Special To The Washington Post
On Dec. 14, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., released “Unlocking the Virtual Front Door,” a report that details the many failures of government agencies to make their websites and online infrastructure accessible to Americans with disabilities. This report is the result of nearly a year of investigation that is part of the committee’s larger effort to ensure all government departments comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires that federal electronic resources be accessible to Americans with disabilities.
In particular, the report highlights the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to create accessible online services for disabled veterans. VA websites and virtual services, the committee showed, have thousands of Section 508 violations and, in some cases, compliance rates of zero percent, making veterans’ access to online resources and medical services challenging, if not impossible.
The frustration disabled veterans experience because of these shortcomings is justified, but unfortunately, it is nothing new. Long before there was a VA and a Senate Committee on Aging to hold it accountable, American veterans demanded access to services promised to them by the federal government. Looking back to early American veterans’ demands for access to federal services reveals how individuals who served their country have consistently advocated for themselves and their comrades. Further, when those in power listen and respond, the result can be creative solutions that not only benefit veterans but Americans more broadly.
In 1833, the federal government, alongside the Navy, opened the United States Naval Asylum. Located on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, this institution was the nation’s first federal site dedicated to long-term care for aging, disabled and impoverished veterans of the U.S. military.
Politicians and naval officials hoped the institution would be an adequate federal response to the needs of destitute old sailors, a population that, in the 19th century, Americans largely viewed as deserving of both private and government support. As War of 1812 hero Commodore William Bainbridge romantically described the future institution at the laying of the building’s cornerstone in 1827, “A home will thus be established for the faithful tar, who has been either worn out or maimed in fighting the battles of his country; a comfortable harbour will be secured, where he may safely moor, and ride out the ebb of life, free from the cares and storms by which he has been previously surrounded.”
Once open, the institution welcomed naval veterans who struggled to live independently due to injuries they received and illnesses they contracted while at sea. At the Naval Asylum, officials promised these aging tars — a popular name for common sailors used throughout the British and American Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries — a refuge to live out their lives in relative comfort. These veterans had multistory verandas where they could enjoy fresh air, their own private rooms and advanced plumbing for the era.
Or so they thought.
By the 1840s, in addition to aging sailors, the Naval Asylum building included the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, which provided acute care to ill and injured mariners arriving on ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and a small school for midshipmen that was a precursor to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The asylum governors regularly corresponded with the secretary of the Navy about the space and services available to everyone, hospitalized sailors, midshipmen and aging veterans included.
Despite this communication, by February 1843, services and resources had significantly declined and the asylum residents, or pensioners, wrote to the secretary of the Navy with a petition protesting the dire conditions. Forty-six of them signed onto the petition to Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur describing how the overcrowded building affected them. The shared space, they lamented, forced a large group of pensioners into rooms on the building’s third floor. These residents, who they described as “lame” and ill were “obliged to get the others to help us up the Stairs.” The petitioners also objected to their lack of privacy from having to share rooms: “Our little rooms … are taken away … and [we] have lost our pride, in not being private by ourselves.”
The service they most wanted, however, was an adequate lavatory. Toward the end of their petition they wrote, “We must not forget to tell you, that 48 Pensioners have the use of but one necessary, and that with but one seat.” Certainly, one bathroom could not meet the needs of 48 men. But the veterans also understood that such inadequate resources signified a lack of appreciation for their military service. After emphasizing they were owed space in the Naval Asylum because of their service to the country, they declared, “We want to live the short time we are in the world in peace and quiet, but if our prayer is not granted, we have made up our minds not to stay here.” The men then concluded the petition and signed their names.
Upon reading the petition, the acting head of the Naval Asylum, Lt. Andrew Hull Foote, quibbled with the residents’ report, calling their portrayal a set of “misrepresentations.” But he did not flatly disagree with the men. In the case of lavatory, for example, he wrote, “The representations of the state of the Privy is substantially correct.”
This moment in the Naval Asylum’s history was important as it reveals the gap between the residents’ expectations and the reality of this federal institution’s shortcomings. Moreover, it marked a turning point in which officials responded in creative ways to meet those expectations. The secretary of the Navy recommended immediate changes to the allotment of space with which the governor complied. A few years later, the midshipmen left the institution and made their educational home in Annapolis. Congress also funded the construction of a separate building for the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. With the asylum building restored to its original purpose, naval veterans continued to call the building in Philadelphia home until 1976, when the institution moved to Gulfport, Miss.
The petition demonstrates how such rightful demands for access are not only a phenomenon of modern problems such as website inaccessibility and exposure to harmful chemicals. Rather, they are rooted in a long-standing expectation that the federal government and military must provide adequate services to disabled veterans. But such services do not only benefit those who served their country. Just like the midshipmen and patients at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital who got their own spaces as a result of the veterans’ demands, improved federal websites and electronic resources will help all Americans with disabilities.
By demanding resources promised to them by a federal entity, the veterans cited in “Unlocking the Virtual Front Door,” are following in the footsteps of the men at the Naval Asylum. In 1843, the veterans’ demands caught the attention of people in power and elicited a response because the nation had promised to fulfill a debt to them in exchange for their service to the country. Lobbying by veterans and their government and military allies for access to services owed to them has a long history, one that could both inform and inspire the VA to follow the Committee on Aging’s recommendations to improve online access for all Americans, former members of the military included. That’s what the veterans at the Naval Asylum certainly would have wanted.
Moyra Williams Schauffler is a doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University, where she is affiliated with the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center. Her research focuses on U.S. veterans, institutions and histories of material culture and the built environment.
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