WASHINGTON -- On the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin today became the first person who uses a wheelchair to preside over a session of the U.S. House of Representatives, thanks to a series of mechanical lifts recently installed to make the speaker's rostrum accessible.
Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, was paralyzed from the chest down in a shooting accident in Warwick, Rhode Island when he was 16. He was working at the Warwick Police Department, when a gun accidentally discharged in the station locker room. The bullet damaged Langevin's spinal cord.
The Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, forbade discrimination and opened public places to people who had mental or physical disabilities.
At a Capitol Hill reception shortly before Langevin took the rostrum, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Langevin has inspired his colleagues, and that his taking a turn with the gavel is "the best possible way to commemorate the passage" of the ADA.
In brief remarks, Langevin recalled lying in the hospital after his accident, and taking inspiration from others who had overcome life-changing injuries. "I hope some other young person...will see that they can succeed, too," he said.
Langevin's family and dozens of friends and former staff members crowded the gallery to see Langevin take the rostrum. He used a special, lighter gavel crafted by House wood workers to be easier to wield, according to his staff.
In one of his first acts as speaker pro tempore, Langevin gaveled his Rhode Island colleague, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, for talking too long in a tribute to Langevin.
When Kennedy asked for more time, Langevin recognized him, "For 15 seconds."
Kennedy laughed, and shouted, "Well, look who's in charge now."
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.