Disabled Lawmakers Overcome Barriers

At a recent GOP convention near Elbow Lake, Minn., candidates were allowed to speak until the convention's sergeant stood up to signal five minutes were up.

Minnesota Rep. Torrey Westrom, who is blind, says, "I went on, and looked over toward him, and said, I'm going to keep talking until I see you standing up.'"

Westrom, 29, says, "Sometimes you have to be a little humorous about your own disability."

It's unknown how many state lawmakers are disabled because often it's not obvious whether a person's physical or mental impairment meets the statutory definition of disability.

Texas Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, uses a wheelchair. New York Sen. David Paterson, D-New York City, is legally blind. In California, Assembly-member Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, uses an assisted listening device.

State lawmakers with disabilities say they are lighting the way for others with physical or mental impairments to follow them into public service, but they point to ways some statehouses are still in the dark ages-- lacking wheelchair accessible offices or hearing rooms wired for computers.

Minnesota's Westrom listens to the text of bills with a computer that has speech capabilities, but not every legislative hearing room is computer-ready.

"There are still some frustrations I have, not having the information as quick as I would like it," Westrom said. "I have to pave my own way because I'm the only one with these hurdles of reading floor amendments or reading bills."

Westrom, who lost his sight in a car accident at age 14, tells people if they don't send documents to him through the computer, "it may take a while [for him] to read it."

The first wheelchair user elected to the Missouri House, Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said his presence in the chamber since 1996 has changed the tenor of conversations.

"I remember being here my first year, and when they'd talk about people with disabilities, they'd talk about what we need to do to take care of those people. I remember getting on the floor and saying, Mr. Speaker, one of those people is here,'" said Graham, 37.

To accommodate Graham, bathrooms near his office and in the capitol were modified for wheelchair access. But Graham, who broke his back in a car wreck at age 16, said physical access to the Missouri Capitol isn't good, and roughly 60 legislators' offices are inaccessible for the wheelchair bound.

"To me, it's an embarrassment," Graham said. "We have required people throughout the state to make all the other state offices accessible yet, for 40 percent of my colleagues, I can't get in and visit them and neither can their constituents with disabilities, and I think that's wrong."

Graham says he hopes more disabled people run for office.

"You've got to get some people out there who are showing the way, and showing that you can do it," Graham said.

In Montana, June Hermanson-- a Democrat from Billings who is legally blind-- will run for the statehouse for the first time this year.

Massachusetts Sen. Fred Berry, D-Peabody, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, says his speech impediment was a challenge when he came into office 20 years ago.

"I don't think I'm a Patrick Henry, a great orator, but when I get up, most of my colleagues think I have something to say," said Berry, 52. "I've been a role model for a lot of disabled."

New York's Sen. Paterson, 47, said when he was first elected in 1985, another member offered to give him a seat in the back of the chamber where a staffer could more easily sit behind him and assist with tasks such as reading legislation.

But "the minority leader said, No, he'll have to figure it out on his own,'" Paterson said. "I would have taken the offer. I did feel a little lonely. I did feel isolated."

Paterson says he feels a responsibility to send the message that disabled people can work.

"I'm not just a disabled person who has made good and is a state senator," Paterson said. "I'm the representative of all the people who aren't doing well who are equally qualified but haven't been as lucky as me. When I get up in the Senate, I'm representing them."

Under Title II of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, statehouses were supposed to be in compliance with accessibility standards by January 1995.

Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities, says enforcement is lacking.

"Unless somebody demands it, they drag their feet," Imparato said.