Langevin to Ascend Rostrum by September

Posted May 20, 2009 at 6:46pm

When Rep. James Langevin came to Congress in 2001, he entered the House chamber as the only Member permanently confined to a wheelchair.

The 200-year-old space was ill-equipped for his arrival. Officials had to remove chairs, renovate bathrooms and build a new lectern so the Rhode Island Democrat could legislate.

But one thing has eluded Langevin’s grasp for more than eight years: the Speaker’s rostrum.

When Members preside over a session on the House floor, they take a seat at the rostrum in front of the chamber. But the wooden structure isn’t accessible to wheelchairs — in fact, it was last rebuilt in the mid-20th century.

That will change in August, when the Architect of the Capitol will install mechanical lifts to each of the rostrum’s three levels, allowing full access to the disabled.

Langevin, who became quadriplegic after a shooting accident when he was 16, said he is excited that he will be able to take the seat in September and preside over a session for the first time.

“That’s going to be a very emotional, moving and at the same time inspirational moment for me,— he said Wednesday. “It’s a major statement, I think, of how far we’ve come.—

The renovation is part of a renewed push to make the Capitol and Congressional buildings more accessible.

On Wednesday, Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard released a “Disability Report— that outlines what the House has done and what it still needs to do.

Chief among the report’s recommendations is that the complex needs more ramps, exits and handicapped parking spots for the public. Doors are also a concern — many swing out the wrong way, have hard-to-grip handles and are too heavy.

Beard said his office is hoping to bring together all of the House’s stakeholders to finally make the last of the necessary changes to Congress’ decades-old buildings.

“One of the the challenges we have is [that] accessibility is everyone’s responsibility,— he said, “and when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.—

Money can also be a problem. Making Congress more accessible is just one priority on a long list of repairs and renovations needed in the Capitol complex. Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers estimates the buildings need more than $1 billion in repairs.

House leaders, however, are pushing to bring accessibility renovations to the top of the list. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — a sponsor of the original Americans With Disability Act — has been working with Langevin for years on disability access.

“Accessibility to the institution that is the center of our democracy is essential,— Hoyer said Wednesday. “Here in the people’s house, we must live not only by the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.—

However, because of its age and history, the Capitol and its buildings are exempt from some of the requirements of the ADA. It’s also difficult to retrofit 2009 requirements to the 200-year-old Capitol.

But officials are working steadily. Last year, the House Office Building Commission began prohibiting Members from putting objects such as easels and furniture in the hallways, and the Architect of the Capitol is still busy installing new ramps and making hearing rooms more accessible.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — who holds the project’s purse strings as chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — commended the effort.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go,— she said.