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Colorado Voters Elect The State's 1st Lawmaker Who Uses A Wheelchair


Colorado has elected its first lawmaker who uses a wheelchair, but the 130-year-old Capitol building where he'll work is not totally accessible. Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports on changes that are now underway, changes that some say are long overdue.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Democratic Representative-elect David Ortiz has had to make a lot of changes in the last eight years. The U.S. Army veteran survived a catastrophic helicopter crash in Afghanistan.


DAVID ORTIZ: So as you pull up in the driveway, you'll notice right away that there are two concrete ramps - one that...

BIRKELAND: Ortiz is a paraplegic. He's 38 years old. And the accident left him without sensation or muscle control below his waist.


ORTIZ: So that makes the main entrance doorway completely accessible with a push-button accessibility. In the carport...

BIRKELAND: Ortiz recorded this virtual tour of his home modifications he'd also like to see at the state Capitol. Steps on the aisles inside the House make it impossible for a person who uses a wheelchair to get to lawmakers' desks. To prepare for Ortiz, ramps have been installed, and crews are putting in a new electronic door. House clerk Robin Jones showed me some of the changes.

ROBIN JONES: This is the desk where we have Representative-elect Ortiz sitting that we've modified so that he can fit his wheelchair underneath the desk.

ORTIZ: Obviously, the most urgent thing was to make sure I could at least do my job.

BIRKELAND: That's Ortiz again.

ORTIZ: But for me, the long-term goal is making sure that entire building is truly the people's house for anybody living with a disability.

BIRKELAND: According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 Americans lives with some type of disability. But Ortiz says before his accident, that wasn't on his radar.

ORTIZ: Unless you have family, friends or until you live that way yourself, it's hard to imagine the many different ways that, you know, the world isn't accessible to you.

BIRKELAND: Seven states have made changes to their Capitol buildings in recent years to accommodate lawmakers with disabilities. Arizona has relocated desks, added electronic doors and remodeled bathrooms after the election two years ago of Democrat Jennifer Longdon, who uses a wheelchair. She says the renovations are a vast improvement and remembers when Arizona's Capitol only had one accessible bathroom.

JENNIFER LONGDON: There was another one that was supposed to be accessible. And I was visiting and tried to use it and ended up breaking my hand. It was just too narrow.

BIRKELAND: Longdon says she was keeping track of Ortiz's election victory in Colorado. She describes state lawmakers with physical disabilities as unicorns because they're so rare.

LONGDON: I think that the disability community, which is the largest minority population in our nation, really gets woefully underrepresented.

BIRKELAND: Republican Colorado House Minority Leader Hugh McKean was one of the people who looked at how Ortiz would access the chamber if he won. He credits Ortiz with helping him see disability through a broader lens. McKean says the ultimate goal is not just to do the minimum requirements, but to truly embody the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

HUGH MCKEAN: It's the freedom of movement that we really aren't that conscious of. And so it's not just to get to one specific place; it's to be able to access the chamber or the building in many ways, just like the rest of us.

BIRKELAND: But these initial changes won't give Ortiz the same access to the chamber as other lawmakers. When it's his turn to preside over the House floor, six staffers will step in to lift him to the podium in his wheelchair.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.


Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia's Marketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.
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