Rhode Island Rep. Langevin Presides Over House Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for the first time, the only member of Congress who is quadriplegic took up the gavel and presided over the House. Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin shows the technology employed to allow him to climb the rostrum and strike the gavel.
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Rhode Island Rep. Langevin Presides Over House

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Rhode Island Rep. Langevin Presides Over House

Rhode Island Rep. Langevin Presides Over House

Rhode Island Rep. Langevin Presides Over House

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Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for the first time, the only member of Congress who is quadriplegic took up the gavel and presided over the House. Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin shows the technology employed to allow him to climb the rostrum and strike the gavel.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 20 years ago today. In the two decades since, the country has seen a subtle transformation. From curb cuts on sidewalks to wider doorways and ramps, the U.S. is now more accessible to people who are physically disabled.

Well, today, in honor of the anniversary, a member of Congress who is a quadriplegic is presiding over the House for the first time. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: It is standard duty in the House of Representatives to sit in for the speaker.

SIEGEL: The journal stands approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

SIEGEL: The Pledge of Allegiance...

SEABROOK: Standard duty, that is, for most members of the majority party but not for Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin today.

SIEGEL: For what purpose does the gentlewoman from California rise without objection?

SIEGEL: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, Jim Langevin.

SEABROOK: When he was a kid, Langevin wanted to be a police officer. He volunteered at the local police department. That's where an accidental gunshot nicked his spinal cord. He was 16.

SIEGEL: I can remember being paralyzed almost 30 years ago. I can remember laying in my hospital bed, and I'm wondering what the world was going to be like, and I always took inspiration from other people with disabilities that had gone on to make a life for themselves.

SEABROOK: By age 24, he was in the Rhode Island Legislature. Later, when he came to the U.S. Capitol, it was a maze of steps and narrow hallways. Today, as he makes his way to his congressional office, he maneuvers his wheelchair down ramps and curb cuts and through automatic doors, all of which exist because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Langevin says the ADA has brought freedom to people like him.

SIEGEL: The ADA has allowed me to concentrate on my job, as opposed to what do I got to do to get from point A to point B.

SEABROOK: The last obstacle in the Capitol, says Langevin, was the rostrum of the House of Representatives. It now has a series of lifts that allow him to rise to the microphone and take the gavel.

Even more important are the changes in people's attitudes, he says. Langevin is not thought of as the congressman in the wheelchair or even the congressman who fights for disabled rights. Langevin is an expert on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's led congressional trips to war zones, riding in the back of a C-130 military plane.

SIEGEL: It's the ultimate in handicapped-accessible travel. The back of the plane just drops down, and I just roll up the back, and they tie me down like a Jeep, right in the wheelchair. So I get to just fly in theater right in the wheelchair and get off the same way.

SEABROOK: And this just illustrates the point that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made when Langevin was the first quadriplegic to preside over the House this afternoon.

SIEGEL: And there's a reason Mr. Langevin is first. He is first because of his courage. He is first because of his inspiration, and he is first because when I became speaker, he said to me: Now that you are presiding, I want to preside, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEABROOK: Langevin has unending tenacity, and he hopes it will inspire everyone.

SIEGEL: Whether it's someone with a disability or the challenges that everyone has to face in life, with the right amount of determination and perseverance, the right tools, there's nothing that should ever get in our way.

SEABROOK: Wheelchair and all, says Langevin, this is the American dream.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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