As a number of factors have produced more opportunities for people with disabilities, entry into the political arena is a logical consequence. Questions about what challenges such individuals will face as politicians and how they will choose to "represent" and focus on disability concerns become paramount. We profile the disability-oriented activities of two politicians (Bob Dole and James Langevin) representative of different cultural eras in the disability rights movement. Despite differences in constituencies and ideologies, findings suggest, as has been true for other underrepresented groups, politicians with disabilities will be more likely to represent disability issues. Because Langevin has been more public than Dole about disclosing aspects of his disability, findings also highlight the impact of a changed cultural context, a member's background, personality and other circumstances on aspects of his political activity.


As a number of factors—changing public opinion, the impact of the Disability Rights Movement and the role of significant legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act—have come together to produce more opportunities/lessen barriers for people with disabilities throughout many areas of society, the possibility for entry into the political arena is a logical consequence. Questions about what unique challenges such individuals will face as candidates and politicians and how they will choose to "represent" and focus on disability concerns become important aspects of study. Challenges center first on overcoming the stigma and stereotypes that go along with overcoming public perceptions about disability—recall for example Franklin D. Roosevelt's well documented and extraordinary efforts to hide from the public any depiction of his disability (Gallagher 1985). Some sixty years later, Jim Langevin, D-RI, became the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress. On his website he expresses his excitement that the rostrum at the House of Representatives was made accessible, allowing him to serve as presiding officer of the chamber. 2

While it may be unfair to compare a "mere" member of Congress to one of the most revered leaders in the history of our country, these divergent views with respect to the presentation of disability raise intriguing questions about how the perspective and behavior of politicians might be affected by their impairments, and as well how perspective and behavior might be affected by the historical, political, and cultural environment in which politicians operate.

While much work has been done on these questions in a variety of contexts of political under-representation—race, ethnicity, gender etc.—for some very good reasons, not the least of which seems to be a lack of easily identifiable such politicians, little is known about the role of disability.

Because there is next to no research in this area, because it is important to understand these issues from the perspective of the candidate/politician, and because questions about the role of disability in one's life are so multidimensional, this paper is a qualitative study of two politicians/legislators operating at different historical points in time—Bob Dole (R-KS), a war veteran who came to politics before the era of inclusion we currently experience and James Langevin (D-RI), since 2000 the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Adapting the approach of the well-known work of congressional scholar Richard Fenno (1978; 2013), we focus on the presentational styles of these legislators, and we examine public record documents covering their disability-oriented activities. To what extent do they disclose much about their disability and to what extent does their work take on a disability focus? Despite substantial differences in the constituencies and ideologies these politicians represent, our findings suggest the possibility that, as has historically been true for other underrepresented groups, politicians with disabilities will be more likely to represent disability issues than other politicians. Because Rep. Langevin has been more public than Dole about disclosing aspects of his own disability, findings also highlight the importance of a changed cultural context as well as the impact of a member's particular background, personality and other circumstances on aspects of his political activity.

Changing Times, Remaining Barriers and the Possibilities for People with Disabilities in Political Office

The challenges and stereotypes historically faced by people with disabilities as well as the significant changes in disability rights over the last several decades are well known and have been well documented. As we know, the association of physical impairment with a lack of ability and efficacy has historically run deep. Exclusions from many aspects of social life and perceptions of incapability have meant that people with disabilities have often been segregated and kept invisible to the wider community. "Because popular perceptions equated disability with inability [within the colonies and later the states], existence of a disability appeared reason enough to deny a person the right to participate in societal life." (Fleisher and Zames 2001, 11). A medical model long defined "disability as limitations in social and vocational functioning" (Longmore 2003, 1), and, in turn, many people with disabilities have lacked the sense of capability and confidence necessary to seek greater inclusion. People whose impairments are not visible have felt it was necessary to hide them in an effort to live "normal" lives (Hahn 1985; Charlton 1998), and others have gone out of their way to minimize the consequences of their disability, disclosing as little as possible to the outside world.

It is equally well known that the last several decades have seen dramatic change in the lives of people with disabilities along with the social attitudes that historically have imposed barriers to their civic engagement. "Rapid advances in technology, new civil rights protections, a generation of better-educated disabled students out of 'mainstreamed' classrooms, a new group consciousness, and political activism mean more disabled people are seeking jobs and greater daily participation in American life" (Shapiro 1993, 4). It is even the case that "a disability-based consciousness and organization is emerging throughout the world which has begun to contest both the oppression people with disabilities experience and the depoliticization of that experience" (Charlton 1998, ix).

Advocates have entered the public arena creating a disability rights movement which has had a notable impact on public policy and social life. Legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act has stressed the importance of not only inclusion—through the lessening of architectural and other barriers—but full social participation as well. Consequently, increased educational and work place opportunities are at hand, and more individuals with disabilities are attaining some level of employment in a wider range of fields.

As one expert summarized the situation, "Never has the world of disabled people changed so fast" (Shapiro 1993, 4). Given this enhanced group consciousness and the expanding opportunities, the entry into politics by people with disabilities is increasingly likely. However, as has been true for other under-represented groups, a legacy of exclusion and stigma remain. Additionally, the commonly held stereotypes of disability particularly contrast with images associated with political power—elected officials are expected to be physically and mentally fit (Hahn 1985; Scotch 2001). "Among the traits that have been discerned regularly among effective leaders… are conscientiousness (which includes dependability, achievement orientation and perseverance), extroversion, dominance, self-confidence, energy, agreeableness…, intelligence, openness to experience and emotional stability" (Williams 1998, 52), and to say the least some of these are not traits which stereotypically have been linked to people with disabilities.

It is not surprising then that throughout the 1930s and 1940s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps the most recognized and revered of the handful of politicians with disabilities who have made it to national elective office, engaged in what has been characterized as a "splendid deception" and did everything he could to keep from the public any depiction of his disability (Gallagher 1985). FDR worried that being seen as a "cripple" was antithetical to being perceived as "good leader." Later, John F. Kennedy, despite running for president in 1960 on the basis of his record and prowess of military service and despite the fact that historically war veterans have been perhaps the one group able to minimize stereotypes about disability (Gerber 2009) nevertheless similarly went to great lengths to hide or minimize his impairments.

"But voters knew little about Kennedy's lifelong illnesses, which had hospitalized him nine times for a total of forty-four days between 1955 and 1957 .… When a medical bag containing Jack's many medications went missing during the campaign, he was frantic to recover it—because of the political consequences rather than any threat to his health" (Dallek 2013, 2-3).

Rather, Kennedy went out of his way to present himself as particularly vigorous, able-bodied, and capable of sustained physical activity (Dallek 2013; Matthews 2011). "At that time power and disability were felt in a visceral way to be mutually exclusive" (Fleisher and Zames 2001, 2).

In light of the changing social context and the acknowledgment that the legacy of stigma and stereotypes die hard, will the challenges faced by current day politicians with disabilities differ from those presented to officeholders of yesteryear? Will current day politicians be more likely to disclose much about their disability in their campaigns and/or focus on disability issues as they represent their constituents?

The Representation of Disability: Questions and Research Design

A large literature exists on the representational styles of legislators from under-represented groups, African-Americans, women, and more recently Latinos and gay and lesbian representatives. For our purposes, two findings—which only scratch the surface of a vast literature—stand out. First, on balance, having women and "minority" legislators in office makes a difference. More often than not, legislators from underrepresented groups are more likely than their "majority counterparts to engage in legislative activity—for instance advocating in congressional committee hearings, sponsoring legislation, roll call voting and presenting themselves to constituents-on behalf of their group than 'majority' legislators" (Canon 1999; Carroll 2002; Fenno 2003; Grose 2011; Mansbridge 1999; Rosenthal 2002; Swain 1995; Swers 2002; Tate 2004; Thomas 1994; Walsh 2002; Whitby 2000).

That said, to over-stereotype women and minority legislators would be wrong. As we should expect, party, constituency and other factors matter, and individual legislators of all groups often have their own agendas. Differences between "minority" and "majority" legislators are sometimes small.3

In this paper, we seek to analyze the kinds of presentational and representational questions highlighted above as they pertain to politicians with disabilities. Because so little is known about such politicians and because the ways disability and representation can intersect are so multidimensional, we have chosen to follow the lead of well-known political scientist Richard Fenno and, in his phrase, "soak and poke" qualitatively through the ways politicians (in his case, legislators) present themselves and their disabilities.

As is well known in the world of political science, from his classic Home Style (1978) onward, Fenno's in-depth examinations of legislators within the framework of their constituencies and their own backgrounds yield rich insights into the perspectives of how members of Congress perceive their activities. Such a holistic understanding integrates what legislators do at home with what they do in Washington and puts specific choices such as bill sponsorship or roll call voting in a larger context. Like other qualitative work, Fenno's approach has the additional advantages of putting the perspective of the legislator front and center and of emphasizing the interactions between that perspective and the social and political context in which the politician operates.

Below, we utilize Fenno's approach to profile two politicians with disabilities who reflect different generations, one achieving public office prior to the "modern" era of disability rights and inclusion and one coming into office thereafter. While both these politicians are national legislators, their constituencies and partisanship are substantially different. Senator, Vice-Presidential and Presidential candidate Robert Dole (R-KS) entered the House of Representatives in 1962 and was elected to the Senate in 1969. A party loyalist who also served as congressional party leader, much of the focus of Dole's activities reflected the conservative and Republican character of his heartland state. James Langevin, Democrat from Rhode Island, took office in 2001. Also involved with his party leadership team, Langevin showed himself to be a loyal Democrat and a representative of a district with very different ideological leanings and needs from the constituents represented by Senator Dole. We chose these two politicians due to the diversity of their constituencies and their partisanship and because of the different "disability generations" they represent.

While we seek to provide a holistic picture of their activities, we also hold out the specific hypothesis that, because of the changed context (described above) in which he operates, Representative Langevin would be more likely to focus on disability issues and be more likely to publicly discuss his disability than Senator Dole. Below, we show that these contextual factors, as well as background and personality traits, do appear to explain much of the behavior of these politicians. While as we might expect, Representative Langevin is indeed more public about matters pertaining to his own disability, Senator Dole was surprisingly likely to be active on disability concerns but mostly in behind-the-scenes roles. 4

Robert Dole: Soldier Out Front on Disability

"For me, the defining period in my life was not running for the highest office in the land. It started years earlier, in a foreign country, where hardly anyone knew my name."

—Dole 2005, 4

Such is the theme of the memoir of Robert Dole, long-time Republican senator from Kansas, leader of his party and candidate for vice-president and president of the United States. Throughout his distinguished career, Dole became "one of the towering political figures in Washington" and cast "a long shadow" over the operation of congressional committees (Barone 1990, 448). He was clearly not only engaged in some of the most important issues of his time—re-stabilizing social security, building a strong economy—he was also someone who used his leadership position to negotiate and broker the stands Congress would take on those issues. It is the purpose of this profile to highlight the role he played on disability issues as well.

Unlike many others of his generation, from his earliest days in Congress, Dole advocated for disability issues on the political agenda (late 1960s and 1970s), negotiating agreements on the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and consistently sponsoring key disability legislation. He is thus featured in books chronicling the history of disability rights as a long-time advocate and "a stalwart supporter of disability causes" (Shapiro 1993, 134), and he frames his advocacy in personal terms of identification, for example often speaking of himself as "one of us" when he speaks of the disability community.

Yet, as is true for many of his generation, until fairly recently, he has been reluctant to speak publicly of his own experiences as a veteran and as someone who has faced the daily challenges of living with a physical disability. In that light, one appreciates the risk Dole took in writing his 2005 memoir, One Soldier's Story, which is the basis for much of the personal description detailed below. We highlight Dole's background and some of his work on behalf of disability and conclude with some speculations about what factors contributed to his consistent advocacy efforts.

Born in Russell, Kansas during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Dole is a product of the time and place he grew up. "Most American families struggled to earn enough money for food and shelter. The Doles…were no exception. Robert Dole's father ran a distribution station for dairy products, and his mother traveled the country roads peddling sewing machines. After school, Robert delivered newspapers and worked at a drugstore soda fountain" (Kent and Quinlan 1996, 103).

In his autobiography, Dole describes close family relationships and strong friendships in a small town of friends and neighbors. Among other activities, he excelled in sports, achieving a basketball scholarship which allowed him to attend the University of Kansas (1941). As his family had strong interests in politics and current events, and given the pressure after the crisis of Pearl Harbor to enlist, with each semester at school, Dole agonized about joining the military, a choice he of course ultimately made.

"On April 14, 1945, he led an assault on a German stronghold in Italy's Po Valley. During the battle, an exploding shell fractured his spine, shattered his right shoulder, and left his body riddled with shrapnel. Doctors at the army hospital told him that he would never walk again" (Kent and Quinlan 1996, 103). In his autobiography, he poignantly describes the incredible ups and downs that must accompany spending extended time (three years) in military hospitals and rehabilitation centers. For Dole, these included a series of life-threatening infections, losing a kidney, a variety of procedures and surgeries and the day-to-day effort of getting through almost complete paralysis. "Gradually he regained movement in his legs, but most of the nerves in his right shoulder had been destroyed. When he finally returned home, he had only the most limited use of his right arm and hand" (Kent and Quinlan 1996, 104). As Dole himself describes,

"As is often the case with any traumatic blow to a person's physical or emotional well-being, I didn't totally understand the seriousness of my injuries, and I was not ready to accept the fact that my life would be changed forever. On the morning of April 14, 1945, I could raise my right hand high in the air and motion the men in my platoon to follow me. It's been more than sixty years since that morning, and I've not raised my right hand over my head since" (Dole 2005, 160).

One is struck throughout by the way a simple show of support during a traumatic time can make a difference, as it did to Dole throughout the time of his war service in Italy and his stays at rehabilitation hospitals, most notably Percy Jones Hospital in Michigan. "Grandma's letter served to remind me of some things—mostly that she believed in me. The army doctors in Pistoia, Italy, thought that I'd never walk again. The physicians at Winter General thought that I'd never walk again. But if Grandma thought I could walk again, I was certainly going to try" (Dole 2005, 182).

He used the wit and humor which later would become one of his trademark modes of presentation to not only help get him through but to encourage others as well:5 "Still, when I rolled around their wards, the wounded knew that I wasn't just some guy who was trying to conjure up false sympathy for them; I could genuinely empathize with them because I had experienced similar pain. Interestingly, my suffering provided me the credibility to encourage others in getting through theirs" (Dole 2005, 206-207).

He overcame fears of being limited to selling pencils on street corners to earn money, showed resilience in the face of insensitive remarks from strangers—"Poor Bob. He probably wishes the Germans had finished him off" (Dole 2005, 231)—and ultimately experienced the thrill of successfully completing his first independent walk from his family's home to the drug store where he had spent so much time before the War.

One more realization awaited:

"But in Russell, as in most of America, people were accustomed to shaking hands. That day in Dawson's, I realized, maybe for the first time, the odd, awkward feeling people had when they stuck out a hand to greet me…I discovered, though, that I could now use them for something. I could roll up a piece of paper and wrap my fingers around it, giving the impression that my right hand was doing something. People who would ordinarily rush up to shake hands with me would now slow down when they saw that I had something in my hand. Gee that must be an important document, because he's clutching it so tightly…I eventually discovered that by holding a pen in the hand, grasping it between my thumb and forefinger and wrapping the remaining three fingers around the shaft of the pen, I made the hand appear normal. For nearly six decades now, if you've seen me on the political campaign trail, in the U.S. Senate, in an interview, joking with Jay Leno on television, in a commercial, visiting with our troops, or anywhere, you've perhaps noticed that the pen is always there" (Dole 2005, 229, 243).

Regardless, using note takers, tape recorders and a "sound scriber" to dictate, Dole made it through college and law school, ran for the Kansas State legislature, worked as prosecuting attorney in Russell and ultimately served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Throughout his almost forty year Congressional career, it is well known that Dole participated in many of the most important controversies of the day. Although a staunch conservative with some traditional values including balancing the budget, he nonetheless was known as one of the "architects" of the food stamp program; he "rescued" the Voting Rights Act amendments of 1982; and his efforts were described as "critical" to the passage of a day to honor Martin Luther King (Barone 1990, 448).

Yet, his first speech on the floor of the Senate was in support of the creation of a disability related task force: "My remarks today concern an exceptional group which I joined on another April 14, twenty-four years ago during World War II. It is a group no one joins by choice. As a minority, it has always known exclusion, maybe not exclusion from the front of the bus, but perhaps from even climbing aboard it'" (Dole 2005, 278).

Throughout his subsequent career, Dole was a staunch advocate for people with disabilities and called for equal access to education, health care, and transportation. A key negotiator on behalf of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he "supported every major piece of disability legislation before Congress…He played key roles in passing the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1975 Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1986 Protection and Advocacy for the Mentally Ill Act, the 1986 Air Carriers Access Act, the 1986 Education of the Deaf Act, the 1988 Technology Assistance Act and the 1990 Television Decoder Circuitry Act."6

A look at the list of some of the bills Dole sponsored in the Senate confirms these assessments as it includes: Disabled workers transportation assistance act (93rd Congress);Establishment of a national information and research center for the handicapped (93rd Congress); Housing opportunities for the handicapped act (93rd Congress); extension for 2 years of the allowance of a deduction for eliminating architectural and transportation barriers for handicapped and elderly individuals (98th Congress); proposals in support of a National Cystic Fibrosis Week (97th Congress) and a National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Week (99th Congress).

Additionally, Dole in 1988 was among those advocates who called publicly for the selection of a deaf president for Gallaudet University in Washington D.C and he has spoken knowledgeably on the challenges facing workers with disabilities:

"There is an attitudinal barrier out there that is quite a hurdle. Particularly with some employers who've never dealt with anybody with a disability. I don't think they're mean-spirited but they sort of consider, well, maybe they're second class, maybe they really can't do it, maybe they're not up to it, maybe they don't have the drive, the stamina, maybe they're going to be absent a lot. These are all myths. Particularly if the labor market stays tight, you know as I said there are still 60 some percent, and these are the severely disabled, unemployed" (Abilities Magazine).7

Dole also publicly defended professional golfer Casey Martin when the PGA kept Martin from using a cart during his rounds. Reiterating the purpose of the ADA and displaying his trademark wit, dole said: "The PGA does not mean 'Please Go Away.' He's here to play… I'll certainly be disappointed if the PGA can't find a solution to what I don't believe is a very serious problem. It's all about fairness. And that's what the ADA is all about."8

But, as a legislator interested in generating compromise and as a relatively conservative member of Congress from the heartland of the United States, Dole could also become upset when tactics used to generate support for the ADA became too confrontational. When the disability rights group ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) conducted a sit-in (in wheelchairs) at the Capitol rotunda in hopes of forcing congressional leaders to vote on the ADA, Dole's reaction is telling and unequivocal: "This doesn't help us any" (Shapiro 1993, 111, 135).

At a deeper level, as his use of the word "us" above suggests, disability issues are personal to Dole. He identifies as "one of us" when highlighting the needs of people with disabilities:

"Bob Dole made a rare reference to his war injury during a poignant visit yesterday with a group of disabled Californians, declaring himself a 'member of that community.' An obviously touched Dole, who lost use of his right arm during World War II, vowed to push to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act as he urged the audience of wheelchair users to 'never give up.' 'When I was a young man and had no disability, I didn't appreciate people who were having difficulties,' said Dole, 73. 'And suddenly you become a member of that community and you're much more sensitive'" (New York Daily News 8/14/1996).

In this context of identity, Dole has a good understanding of the myths and fears and perhaps more importantly the capabilities surrounding people with disabilities. As he said about FDR, "He [FDR] carefully avoided being photographed in his wheelchair, but I really don't think his disability mattered to anyone but him. The nation trusted him, responded to his leadership, and elected him to the presidency four times—more than any other U.S. president in history" (Dole 2005, 18).

More generally, he points out:

"For some people, it's fear. They don't know how to deal with persons with disabilities. It's ignorance; they don't know what having a disability is. People need to know that you talk to a person with a disability like you talk to anyone else. They're normal people who've got a problem, but that certainly should not interfere with what they're going to do with the rest of their lives." (Ability Magazine)

In addition, in a personal way, Dole has even connected lessons from his disability-related experiences to his success as a legislative leader:

"Two qualities that I've learned through my war experience and the subsequent disabilities I've lived with for the past sixty years are patience and adaptability…. But not just waiting idly; no, to wait, as Dr. Kelikian said, with a faith to endure-believing that you have a future. Perhaps that's one reason why I sometimes didn't try to rush legislation through the Senate. In fact, if I had any skill as a legislative leader, I probably possessed an instinctive knack for knowing when the time was right to make a move, or to attempt to make a good deal. Part of that patience, I'm sure, I learned at Percy Jones Army Hospital, while I was trying to get my fingers and toes to move" (Dole 2005, 273).

Inspired by some young people with disabilities in Kansas, Dole has even formed a foundation advocating for the employment prospects of people with disabilities. (Ability Magazine), and as he approaches age 90, he recently visited the U.S. Senate to support an international treaty on behalf of the rights of people with disabilities.9

However, in spite of his awareness and interest, Dole himself throughout most of his career was reluctant to talk about his own experiences or tell his personal story. It was in the context of the 1996 presidential campaign that, in an effort to get him to loosen up and make more personal connections with the electorate, his staff began urging him to become open about his experiences.

Here's what happened:

"The decision was made two weeks ago and it seemed ideal: Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole would give the commencement address at Gallaudet University. Where better than at this esteemed school for the deaf for the decorated war hero to tell his own moving story of living with a disability? His political aides promoted the speech days in advance. An early draft referred to Dole being tested by his injuries. On Friday, an unusually large crowd of reporters arrived early hoping to chronicle a high point in an otherwise lagging campaign…

"As a sign language interpreter translated his remarks and as the words flowed across a giant screen, Dole challenged the students to "go above and beyond the call of duty," to do the best they could, "and then some." The speech lasted about 15 minutes and left many in the hall, including his aides, wondering what happened. Bob Dole never once mentioned being disabled…

"I don't like it," Dole said then. "I don't know what people think when I talk about myself; maybe this guy's looking for pity." (St. Petersburg Times 5/11/1996)

But, in the end, Dole's own summation of his career harkened back to the disability experiences so central to his life. "These days, I'm sometimes asked what accomplishments I am most proud of during my tenure in the Senate. My answer sometimes surprises people. I tell them that the things I reflect on most fondly are not party or personal victories, but things like saving Social Security and passing the Americans with Disabilities Act" (Dole 2005, 277).

As is the case for many people of his generation, it was clear that Dole was reluctant to disclose publicly much of his personal story and the details of his experiences with his disability. Fearful of reactions of pity, it was important to him to keep his struggle private and to adhere to his image of what an ideal political figure should look and behave like. The stereotypes that affect individuals in everyday life apply even more in the case of someone who has devoted themselves to the public sphere.

We can only speculate why in his role as congress member and leader Dole worked so hard to push disability issues. Did the motivation for his actions stem from some underlying personality trait, the extreme difficulty of his years-long recovery experience, the support he received from his family and the friends and neighbors from Russell, Kansas? Or was it, as Dole has said, simply faith?10 Regardless, this profile clearly illustrates that Dole was ahead of his time in his staunch advocacy for the concerns of people with disabilities. In spite of his private nature during his time in office, his record shows his unequivocal political commitments and convictions.

Jim Langevin: A Seat at the Table

"I understand the nature of disabilities probably more than most because I am disabled, and where I can be of help and be an advocate I am…But it's not who I am. It's not what defines Jim Langevin. There are so many issues that I'm interested in."

—(New York Times 11/27/2000

"Mr. Speaker, Mr. Langevin, it is with great pride and joy that I rise today to acknowledge the history that you are making [by presiding over the House of Representatives]. By your leadership and your inspiration and your education of the Congress, you have helped take us to a place that honors the tradition and the goals of our Founders to improve liberty and equality for all Americans." [Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking on the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the making accessible of the House rostrum]

—(Capitol Hill Press Releases 7/26/2010

Some thirty years after Bob Dole was first elected to the U.S. Senate, Jim Langevin (D-RI) became the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. As was true for Senator Dole, Langevin was not born with a disability but was injured in an accident working for a police department. Rep. Langevin has also made disability policy one of his foci; his mere presence in Congress has in itself served to educate others. Many see him as a significant role model and simply by virtue of his "seat at the table," Langevin has increased awareness about disability concerns.

At the same time, as was also the case for Dole, Langevin is first and foremost a member of the House of Representatives from the second district of Rhode Island. As such, his focus on disability must be placed in a broader representational context (New York Times 11/27/2000). Whether because of the changing nature of the times or because the nature of his disability makes it more visible, Langevin has been more likely than Dole to publicly discuss his disability.

In what follows, we highlight Langevin's background and chronicle his disability related work, situating both in the broader context of his representational activities.

As was true for Dole, Langevin as a child may not have known he would come to have a distinguished career in public service; however, even from childhood, he showed himself to be unusually intelligent and highly motivated. For instance, during his sophomore year in high school, he talked about skipping a grade so he could finish early (Providence Journal-Bulletin 9/24/2000), and rather than for instance acting as your typical teenager who just wants to hang out at the mall, Langevin at age 16 wanted to take part in a training program with the Warwick Police Department as potential preparation for a career in law enforcement:

"That afternoon, he went directly to the police locker room and put it (the uniform he meticulously ironed before each work shift) on. There were two officers there, one showing a new gun to the other. It was a .45-caliber semiautomatic, designed to drop or kill an attacker in a single shot. One officer removed the clip, and handed the gun to the other. He did not realize there was still a bullet in the chamber. He aimed it at a locker and pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted and went through Jim Langevin's neck" (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2002).

In a moment, Langevin's life was forever changed. First and foremost, he had to go through extensive hospitalization and rehabilitation, and as for Dole, the path to his "reentry into society proved to be one that took many twists and turns."

"For starters, imagine for instance that age sixteen you're suddenly told you no longer have use of most of your limbs. Imagine spending your nights fearing falling asleep because your lungs could fill with fluid, and imagine when you're excited about returning home for Christmas only to come down with a respiratory infection" (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2002).

Many years later, during an early congressional campaign, a reporter asked Langevin if it had been a single event which renewed his purpose and passion:

"It was more general than that, he says. It was the way his community kept reaching out. Groups held fundraisers, strangers sent letters (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2002).

"After my accident, I had so many just wonderful people come together in my community, around the state and rallied behind me and my family at a time when I needed it the most and when my family needed it the most. It made me see the good in people and realize what people can do by pulling together and trying to make a difference. And they certainly did in my case. And that touched me in such a profound way that made me want to give something back to the community if I ever had the opportunity" (National Public Radio interview with Bob Edwards 1/31/2001).

His focus now on politics, Langevin demonstrated the same kind of tenacity he had as a boy, and he began to engage in the kinds of activities that any other aspiring politician must do to jumpstart a career. Among other things, he worked on the mayoral campaign of Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty. Flaherty says:

"I don't think people have a full appreciation of how tenacious this guy is. He did work for me that first mayoral campaign… People, including myself, would be amazed. He did try to call people. You know how difficult it is for him to dial a phone? It takes him five minutes. He'd do it. You know how difficult it is for him to stuff envelopes? He'd get it done. He is tenacious, goal-oriented, keeps his eye on the target, never complains, and just keeps going" (Providence Journal-Bulletin 9/24/ 2000)

At age 22, Langevin made his first run for political office, achieving election as a Delegate to Rhode Island's Constitutional Convention and serving as its secretary (Web Biography).11 He successfully attained a seat in the state legislature while still attending college:

"When I wanted to run for state rep. Frank Flaherty's advice was to finish college. His advice was, 'Jim, there'll be plenty of times to run in the future, get your college education out of the way first'"(Providence Journal-Bulletin 9/24/ 2000).

"Later [after getting his master's degree from the Kennedy School], Langevin was mulling whether to go to law school or get his master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He [Flaherty] said, 'Jim, get your law degree.' Langevin got the master's instead." (Providence Journal-Bulletin 9/24/2000)

Defeating an incumbent, he became the nation's youngest Secretary of State, only to be reelected with the largest margin for anyone who had held that office (Web Biography). And after facing a competitive primary, Langevin was elected to Congress in 2000.

The two quotes at the top of this profile illustrate the ways disability has impacted Langevin's congressional career. However, it is important to highlight that Langevin's disability related activities occur in a broader context. Put differently, when first elected to Congress, "Mr. Langevin said he would devote most of his attention to issues that have nothing to do with his accident or disability" (New York Times 11/27/2000).

Thus, Langevin reinforces that he was elected first and foremost the representative of the second district of Rhode Island. As is the case for any other similarly situated politician, Langevin is thus responsible for the kinds of policy and service representation required by virtue of his office. "Throughout his career Congressman Jim Langevin has made Rhode Island's priorities his own and has fought to open the doors of government to its rightful owners—the people of this great nation" (Web Biography). As a press release accurately described his focus after his 2010 reelection:

"As the 112th Congress gets underway, I rededicate myself, first and foremost, to strengthening our economy and creating new jobs for Rhode Islanders. The recovery that has begun is still fragile, and we must create an environment in which businesses have the support and confidence to grow and hire new workers.

"I am also eager to continue my work on national security issues, through my House Armed Services and Intelligence Committee assignments. In particular, I will focus on strengthening our defenses against cyber security threats, both across government and in the private sector. In addition, I will work to ensure that Rhode Island's defense industry continues to play an important role in Americas national security and to be a source not only of pride for our state, but of job growth for our workers" (States News Service 1/5/2011).

In the same article, he also highlighted his interest in protecting health care reform, improving education and the need to bring the deficit under control.

Langevin's key efforts have included a focus on cybersecurity (He has been Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the bipartisan House Cybersecurity Caucus and has worked to implement the recommendations of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Web Biography)). He also co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, particularly highlighting a skills gap between what schools are doing to meet the needs of industry (Press Release 5/6/2011, 8/10/2011). Representative Langevin also has been a member of the party leadership structure, currently serving as a Democratic Regional Whip for New England and as a member of the House Minority Whip's Senior Whip Team (Web Biography).

Additionally, as is the case of course for other members of Congress, Langevin travels extensively in and around the district, engaging in activities including meeting with constituents and announcing federal money to aid constituents:

"Langevin calls for open space, beach access at Rocky Point" (Press Release 6/18/2001)

"Langevin to read to East Greenwich and North Kingstown Students this Friday" (Press Release 4/4/2001)

"Langevin to Announce C.O.P.S. Grant for Warwick (Press Release 1/24/01)"

In fact, Flaherty highlighted Langevin's drive for constituency service as early as the time he was a state legislator.

"That's the way he's been as an elected official. My last term as mayor was his first term as a legislator. He'd come in looking for something for his area of the city and he'd drive me crazy, chase me around. I used to threaten to unplug the battery on his wheelchair so I wouldn't have to listen."(Providence Journal-Bulletin 9/24/ 2000).12

Against this abbreviated background of Langevin's foci within Congress, there is no question that he has also made disability issues a part of his policy agenda. One of Langevin's priorities has been advocacy of stem cell research, a medical technology with the potential to ameliorate and even cure a number of specific conditions including spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Though one could probably represent Rhode Island's second district without any mention of this issue, Langevin's efforts certainly put him out front in this arena. As one source summed up his considerable effort:

"During his Congressional tenure, Langevin has been a strong proponent of increasing government funding and expanding the number of stem cell lines available for research. He has written to the President (Bush) on multiple occasions, urging him to reconsider current restrictions, testified before a Senate Committee in favor of stem cell research funding, made multiple statements on the House floor in support of lifting current restrictions, appeared on NBC's Meet the Press in August 2001 and spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to argue for expanded research, as well as increased federal oversight to address ethical concerns"(US Fed News 5/20/2005).

Numerous additional examples attest to Rep. Langevin's support for issues pertaining to disability. He was an original cosponsor of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act (US Fed News 5/2/2006) and he "worked closely with Christopher and Dana Reeve in recent years on a range of issues that affect people living with paralysis and their loved ones. He was involved in establishing the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center (PRC), a federally funded program, which promotes the health and well-being of people living with paralysis and their families by providing comprehensive information resources and referral services." (US Fed News 3/7/ 2006).

He announced in his district the passage of legislation significantly increasing funding for autism (Press Release 12/26/2006). He (and former rep. Tom Tancredo; Republican, Colorado) sponsored a congressional resolution which "provides for Congressional recognition of Weinhenmayer's (first blind climber to ascend Mount Everest) outstanding accomplishment and the tremendous achievements people with disabilities can make with the proper resources, training and opportunities." (Press Release 11/5/2001).13

But in addition to any involvement with specific pieces of legislation, Langevin's contributions center around raising awareness, taking a social perspective and simply being out and around as someone comfortable speaking about issues he faces as a person with a disability. The best illustration of his effort to expand disability awareness is his co-foundership (with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan) since the 107th Congress of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus. As described on its website, the caucus "serves as a groundbreaking forum for Members of Congress and their staff to discuss the many issues affecting people with disabilities. The primary purpose of the Caucus is to inform, educate and raise awareness on issues affecting people with disabilities."

The following illustrates why such efforts are so necessary:

"It is estimated that one in five Americans is living with a disability. Most Americans will experience a disability at some point during their lives, either personally or within their families. As advances in public health, medical treatment, and technology enable people to live longer lives and survive once-fatal diseases, the likelihood of their developing a disability increases. It is crucial that we continue our work to create a more accessible and inclusive society for people with disabilities. The BDC has been a leading force in the House of Representatives in promoting measures to accomplish this goal."14

Included on this website are lists of a variety of resources useful to people with disabilities themselves as well as some fairly shocking figures as to strikingly low educational and unemployment rates probably under-appreciated by people not familiar with disability issues.

Thus, in a variety of venues, beginning with the observance of several anniversaries of the Americans with disabilities Act, Langevin highlights the capabilities of people with disabilities:

"Individuals with disabilities remain one of our nation's greatest untapped resources, and they continue to face challenges in accessing employment, transportation, and housing and even health care. This will only continue as we see increasing numbers of veterans returning with Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and other disabling conditions. It is more important than ever that we educate businesses and connect them with proper resources to create more employment opportunities in our communities.

"We must also continue the development of assistive technologies and make sure that computers, PDAs and phones are fully accessible for the vision and hearing impaired." 15.

But, in many ways, it is Langevin's mere presence in Congress and his willingness to speak about his disability related experiences that serve as the bottom line to this profile. Understandably, Rep. Langevin's initial election as the first (but as he later says, not the last) quadriplegic to enter Congress drew more than the usual share of attention to new members. Langevin was interviewed extensively in the press in outlets including National Public Radio and ABC's Good Morning America:

"Representative Jim Langevin Discusses Being In Congress, Being A Paraplegic And His Hopes That He Can Help Other People With Disabilities While In Congress" (NPR 1/31/2001).

"Congressman-Elect James Langevin, First Quadriplegic Member of House of Representatives, to Be Sworn In Today, Shares Video Diary" (ABC News, Good Morning America 7/3/2001).

In these interviews, Langevin first shares his understandable excitement on being elected to Congress and then goes on to reiterate the often underrated capabilities of people with disabilities:

"The sense of history entering the building, the thought of those who had gone before me and others and the tremendous amount of responsibility that you feel when you enter Congress.

"Sometimes people will see disability as a weakness. I know that, that's not the case. Being willing to—to work hard and study hard means that you can accomplish and do anything in your life that you want to do. And that's what's great about America" (NPR ⅓/2001).

Nor does Langevin hesitate when the occasion seems appropriate to talk about the practical challenges of dealing with a disability. He thus admitted to a reporter his concern about the logistics of flying back and forth between Rhode Island and Washington, and on more than one occasion, he was willing to share details of the accommodations he makes as a member of Congress to dealing with his disability—using a bone in his wrist to press buttons on a Blackberry, storing portable ramps in his van to allow admittance to otherwise inaccessible buildings and using a special assistant to help on the floor of the House.

"A staffer sets a toasted bagel on his desk, as well as a regular coffee with a straw in the cup. Langevin briefly lifts the coffee between his wrists, which looks precarious. Again using his wrists, he works a half-bagel onto the heel of his left hand and eats it that way. For lunch, he often has a salad or yogurt. He can weave a spoon or fork through his fingers, but lacks the strength for a knife. When he orders steak or chicken, he asks for it pre-cut. "Barbecued spare ribs," he says with a smile, "I usually eat in the privacy of my own home" (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2002).

In a more political context, he talks about accommodations needed in the House of Representatives to help him do his job, the importance to him of making sure that FDR was represented in a wheelchair at the FDR memorial, and above all, his enjoyment of his chosen field:

"We chose an office on the first floor of the Cannon building because it was very close to the Capitol, and what happens is when votes are scheduled, you'll be given about 15 minutes to get from your office to the—to the House floor, and that doesn't allow a whole lot of time" (NPR 1/31/2001).16

"I remember six years ago—it was kind of an issue near and dear to my heart—I wrote and actually met with Senator Daniel Inouye, who was co-chairman of the FDR Memorial Commission, and lobbied him to add a depiction of FDR in his wheelchair. It accurately represented who he was and the obstacles that he had to overcome. He's a tremendous inspiration to me and millions of other people with disabilities or anyone with challenges across America. And we all face challenges" (NPR 1/31/2001).

In sum, this profile of Representative Langevin illustrates the priority he places on specific disability issues. Like Senator Dole, Langevin includes work on disability issues as part of the broader representation of his district. Unlike Dole, however, Langevin has proven more willing to make public the personal details of living with a disability. His seat at the table serves to educate others. We speculate that Langevin's background and personality impact his choices. His openness is consistent with the modern era of greater inclusion. First and foremost, this is the story of a politician who likes his chosen profession.17

"I [a reporter covering Langevin] ask if he actually likes this tumult (of finding himself in the middle of the crowd surrounding a presidential state of the union address). His smile turns broad, and his answer is so calm I have to lean close to hear. 'I'd rather be in the middle of the game,' he says, "than on the sidelines watching." (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2001).


In light of the many steps toward social inclusion, along with remaining stereotypes, towards people with disabilities, what of the realm of politics? As individuals are taking advantage of all manner of new opportunities, it is only a matter of time before we see increased numbers of such individuals attempting to run for political office. To what extent will they choose to disclose about their disability, and what are the chances they will include disability concerns as they go about the business of representing their constituents?

The findings of the exploratory case studies presented in this paper first off suggest, as is generally true for politicians from other "minority" groups, the likelihood that once in office, public officials with disabilities will be more likely than their non-disabled counterparts to include disability concerns as some part of their political agenda. Thus, despite significant differences in the nature of their constituencies, political affiliations and generational cohorts, the profiles above make it clear that both politicians have made it a point to advocate for people with disabilities. Bob Dole had a strong, if behind-the-scenes role, in promulgating the Americans with Disabilities Act along with other major legislation of his time, and Jim Langevin has advocated for stem cell research, government programs to assist people with disabilities an expanded awareness that with more resources and opportunities. Such individuals can make valuable contributions to the workforce and to society.

The profiles of these politicians also teach us that, again as has been the case for politicians of other underrepresented groups, the "representation" of disability can take many forms—including behind-the-scenes work on specific issues, public advocacy or simply raising awareness. Even occupying a proverbial seat at the table can make a difference.

What factors motivated the representational styles of these legislators? Despite the forty or so years separating their formative years, notable similarities exist between the backgrounds of these politicians. Both showed considerable drive and motivation when young, both experienced a significant injury in what would be perceived by most as a "heroic" context, and, in the aftermath of their rehabilitation, both received an outpouring of support from friends and neighbors of their communities. Because Rep. Langevin has been more public than Dole about disclosing aspects of his own disability, findings also suggest the importance of a changed cultural context. Personality and the visibility to the public of one's disability may matter, but we speculate that in an era of increased inclusion and openness, it is easier to "disclose" and to run as someone who advocates for disability issues.

What are the implications of this research for the future? Just as we focus on increasing inclusion and change, the fact that our broader project uncovered only a handful of candidates and politicians with disabilities serves as a stark reminder of the historical strength of social stigma. Even people with disabilities themselves sometimes find it difficult to develop a sense of their own capabilities, and both profiles presented here serve as stories of individuals who needed their unusual tenacity and drive to achieve the positions they have held. At the same time, Bob Dole's staunch advocacy, James Langevin's seat at the table and the fact that these two working politicians stand as representatives in the truest sense of the word of their constituencies certainly serve as important signals of progress.


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  1. We would like to thank Brian White and Christine Dow for their assistance and engagement on this project.
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  2. http://langevin.house.gov/press-release/langevin-presides-over-house-first-time-marks-20th-anniversary-americans-disabilities July 22, 2010
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  3. Enough variation exists to have led several scholars to systemically categorize differences between representational styles of women or minority legislators (Canon 1999; Fenno 2003; Friedman, 2007, ch. 5; Wilson 1960).
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  4. Thus, the profiles below are based on an in-depth analysis of public record sources (including publicly available documents on the U.S. Congress, press coverage, legislator websites). In the modern internet era, so much material on members of Congress is available that rich descriptions of legislator activities are at hand and prove an excellent approximation to ways legislators present themselves (Friedman, 2007).
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  5. One of the people he met and encouraged was future Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii.
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  6. http://www.dolekemp96.org/agenda/issues/disabilities.htm For further evidence that disability has long been a priority for Dole, a search of the digital archive of his press release yields 97 hits. (http://dolearchivecollections.ku.edu Accessed 12/12/13)
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  7. Ability Magazine Date Accessed Nov. 21 2013
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  8. "Let's just say for the sake of argument that using a cart does provide an advantage for Casey. That still should not be the end of the debate. The ADA requires reasonable modifications unless such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the competition. Surely, there must be some modification of the PGA rules, be it that Casey has to walk part of the way and ride part of the way, or allowing each competitor to choose to use a cart if he or she wishes. And that does not place Casey at an unfair advantage" (The Washington Times 1/29/1998).
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  9. http://blogs.rollcall.com/wgdb/gop-gets-another-chance-to-back-disabilities-treaty/
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  10. "In the end, what gets people through a physical or emotional crisis is not new technology or medication. Those things can help, of course. But it's faith that gives you the strength to endure-faith that won't allow you to give up; faith that manifests itself in a ferocious determination to take the next step-the one that everyone else says is impossible" (Dole 2005, 3).
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  11. http://langevin.house.gov/about-me/full-biography
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  12. While it is hard to know if he does so at a rate higher than other members of Congress, it is easy to find instances where Langevin and his staff particularly noted work on grants to groups advocating on disability issues: "Langevin Recognizes Meeting Street for Receipt of Reeve Foundation Grant". (Meeting Street is a nonprofit organization promoting the independence of children with disabilities.) "Langevin Joins Hundreds of families, Advocates to raise Autism Awareness" (Press Release 4/10/2011)
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  13. On a couple of issues not directly disability related, it is interesting to note that Rep. Langevin's disability has nonetheless influenced his actions. While many Democrats tout their support for gun control, Langevin's rationale is interesting because his support follows so directly from his accident: "My accident happened at the hands of two weapons experts on a police SWAT team," he said. "And if they can have an accident with a gun, then anybody can. I don't want to see what happened to me happen to a small child." Also Langevin traces his controversial pro-life stand to his accident: "Mr. LANGEVIN: That's--that's true. At--at the age of 16, I almost lost my life. And yet I was given a second chance. And I feel so fortunate to be alive. And I love life. I have a passion for living and--and I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of that experience." (ABC News, Good Morning America, ⅓/2001)
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  14. http://disabilitiescaucus.langevin.house.gov/
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  15. (Disabilities, Exclusive Written Interview of Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) by Joel Solkoff, Voices of Central Pennsylvania, 12/2/2010) http://voicesweb.org/exclusive-written-interview-rep-jim-langevin
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  16. "There's been a number of things they've had to do in terms of removing a couple of seats from the House floor so that I could pull into a spot and speak to colleagues in their joint sessions of Congress and be able to have a spot, to not be sitting in the aisle so to speak. Also they've added a couple of new voting machines so that I can cast my vote easily. And they had to redesign the mike system and a number of other things" (NPR 1/31/2001). He testified before the House Administration Committee on ways to make congress more accessible. "It is appropriate during this week of celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act that the House is examining its own workplace," said Langevin. "And while I continue to be overwhelmed by how flexible my colleagues, the Committee and the House Leadership have been in accommodating my needs, there are certainly areas where the House could improve accessibility—for me as well as many disabled staff members, interns and visitors" (US Fed News7/28/2005).
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  17. As a side note to the comparison of Senator Dole and Rep. Langevin, it is interesting to note that just as Dole reflected on the broader role disability had played in his life, Langevin highlighted the importance of patience (which he said he learned from being a wheelchair user) and faith. "I happen to believe things happen for a reason," Langevin says. Perhaps, he adds, God considers his situation a message to others…That we're not alone. That there's a loving God looking out for us. And that if we persevere, God will meet us halfway." (Providence Journal-Bulletin 2/3/2002).
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