Obama to give first State of Union on wheelchair-accessible rostrum

President Barack Obama on Wednesday will become the first president to deliver the State of the Union address on a wheelchair-accessible Speaker's rostrum.

While the mechanical modifications ran about five months behind schedule, the final touches have been made and Congress’s only paraplegic member, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), is looking forward to presiding over the House for the first time, possibly next month.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s a welcome change,” said Langevin in an interview. “I’m excited about the prospect of being able to preside over the House of Representatives and also the message that it sends that the House is open for all who have physical disabilities and who want to serve here.”

Langevin, who uses a wheelchair, has been prohibited from presiding over the House because the rostrum has two sets of two stairs.

“Everything has been completed,” he said of the new rostrum. “And the floor staff are being trained on how the new system operates.”

The alterations to the rostrum, which hosts the Speaker tempore and the House clerks each day the chamber is in session, are nearly invisible when the lift is not in use. On the east side of the rostrum is a slight break in the dark blue carpeting where a section of the floor descends from each set of two stairs. Once the wheelchair is in place and secure, the flooring then ascends back up the stairs and slides over, becoming flush once again with the rest of the rostrum’s flooring.

Langevin said that the delay was due to faulty mechanics, but that the construction crew was able to make it so the motors on the lift are much quieter than before.

“The lifts were not working consistently,” he said. “They were working intermittently. The company came back and worked on them and then installed them all again. And it takes time.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office said it is not certain when Langevin would be scheduled to preside, but that it would likely be in the coming weeks. The adjustments to the rostrum came at Pelosi's request.

"The Speaker looks forward to handing the gavel over to Congressman Langevin in the coming weeks so he can finally preside over the House that he proudly serves, and she will continue to work in a bipartisan way to expand opportunities for people with disabilities,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi.