By Carol D. Leonnig
When Jim Langevin first rolled his wheelchair onto Capitol Hill in 1984 as a young Senate intern, barriers to the disabled in this city were even more common than the bollards that now circle its monuments.
Langevin, a quadriplegic since a gun accident when he was 16, could not get his chair through the doors of many meeting rooms or Capitol Hill offices. It was a challenge to find a restroom he could enter, much less a shower.
Now a congressman, Langevin soon will have access to a long-unattainable spot: the speaker's rostrum at the front of the House chamber. The House leadership announced last month that it will reconstruct the built-in wooden chair on the podium and build lifts to provide accessibility for wheelchairs.
Eighteen years after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the move will allow Langevin, the only permanently disabled member of the House, to preside over sessions for the first time. Though there are no records on the subject, that could make him the first person in a wheelchair ever to lead a session of the House.
'Yes, I'm the first quadriplegic to serve in House, but I certainly won't be the last,' said the Rhode Island Democrat, who was elected in 2000. 'I'm excited for the people after me. It shows once again that people with disabilities can lead and serve just like anybody else.'
Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, cheered the symbolic importance of the change, saying it will demonstrate the limitless possibilities for people with disabilities.
'This is a sign that Congress is recognizing the diversity of the population,' Imparato said. '. . . In some ways, it's sad we had to wait this long to make this happen, but we give the bipartisan leadership credit that it happened now.'
Renovations to the rostrum -- the seat behind the president occupied by the speaker during the annual State of the Union address -- are expected to be finished by the end of this year. The work will be led by the Architect of the Capitol, but spokesmen for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said they do not have a cost estimate.
'Our commitment to a barrier-free workplace sends an invaluable message to all Americans that the House will lead by example,' Pelosi said.
The landmark ADA required hotels, offices, schools, parks and other public facilities to become accessible for people with disabilities. The changes it mandated are now so ubiquitous that they go largely unnoticed: wider doorways, ramps next to stairs and handrails in showers and bathroom stalls, to name a few.
Many parts of the Capitol, however, remain difficult for the disabled to navigate, largely because the building's historic status exempts it from the law's strictest provisions. The Architect of the Capitol, like the managers of other historic buildings, has a great deal of flexibility in deciding which accommodations can reasonably be made for people with disabilities.
Since he took office, Langevin has watched the Capitol complex's barriers come down one by one, sometimes at his urging. He has found a sympathetic ear in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.), an original sponsor of the ADA. Langevin's colleagues arranged to put ramps in his committee rooms, reconstruct the House so he could more easily speak in the chamber and remove seats to make room for his wheelchair.
'It's the ultimate handicapped parking in the House,' Langevin said. 'Right up front.'
Langevin, 44, is the only current member of the House who relies on a wheelchair all the time. But other members have used wheelchairs or motorized scooters at times, including the late representative Henry Hyde of Illinois.
'Hopefully, this will be an inspiration to people with disabilities not only in Rhode Island, but across America,' Langevin said. 'I hope others with disabilities will continue to dream and hope to serve. There's no reason that they can't.'
Last month, the House voted 402 to 17 to provide broad protections to more people with disabilities, overturning several Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of disabled. Advocates of the legislation said the bill would confirm Congress's more sweeping intentions for the ADA. Pelosi arranged the announcement of the speaker's rostrum reconstruction to coincide with that vote.
Some court rulings have denied job protections and accessibility rights to people with epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other conditions, arguing that they are not disabilities because they could be temporary or improved with medication.
The Senate held a hearing on a companion bill late last year and is expected to begin considering it in coming weeks. President Bush has indicated support for the concept of strengthening disability rights, but the administration has expressed 'significant concerns' about litigation and difficulty implementing the House bill.