The Braille Monitor                                                                                               __May 1997

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U.S. Senators Scramble for Cover

by Barbara Pierce

According to one Senate staffer, "Pick any three letters of the alphabet, and a camera crew answering to that name was on Capitol Hill filming Moira Shea and her guide dog Beau," on April 15, 1997. The media free-for-all occurred following a frantic twenty-four hours which saw a number of senators scrambling to be seen on the right side of the question of whether or not a person not actually employed as a member of a senator's staff could be accompanied by her guide dog onto the Senate floor. At a time when guide and other service dogs are routinely allowed into hospitals, restaurants, and taxis driven by people afraid of dogs, one might have assumed that there would have been no question about admitting a guide dog to the Senate floor. But nothing is ever simple in the protocol-laden upper chamber of Congress.

Moira Shea is an employee of the Department of Energy, where she has worked for several years. For the second year she is a Congressional Fellow on loan to the Senate, where she was assigned to the staff of Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky last year and to the staff of freshman Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon this year to help with his work on the Senate Energy Committee. She has Usher's syndrome, which has resulted in both a significant hearing loss and blindness. Her guide dog is an important part of Ms. Shea's ability to function independently in a demanding job.

The only people allowed on the Senate floor without seeking permission to enter the chamber from a member of the sergeant at arms's staff are the members themselves and, by courtesy, the members of their actual staffs. Everyone else must receive unanimous permission to do so. The senator asks if there are objections, and, as long as no member says anything, the person may come in. The procedure is almost always quick and uncomplicated. Late last year a question about the dog's presence on the floor arose, and Senator Ford introduced a resolution about the problem. But the session ended before it could be acted upon. So it was pretty clear that this session Beau was eventually going to trigger an incident. April 14, 1997, proved to be the day it happened.

The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration establishes all of the regulations that stipulate behavior and actions on the Senate floor. No one, including senators, may smoke or bring a laptop computer onto the floor, for example. We were told that women have been banned from the floor because their dresses were too short and men because their attire was too informal. If a doorkeeper believes Senate decorum or a rule is about to be breached, the question goes to the floor for a decision.

When Senator Wyden showed up accompanied by Shea and her dog on April 14, the appropriateness of Beau's presence was questioned, and the fat was in the fire. According to news stories the next day, none of the four senators then on the floor objected to the dog's presence, but Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and a man perennially concerned about the unconsidered ramifications of waiving Senate rules without due reflection, sent in word that he objected to Shea's use of the dog on the floor until the Committee on Rules and Administration had considered the matter. Senator Wyden, disturbed at the decision to bar Beau from the floor, rose to comment on the situation and offer a resolution. This is what he said:

Congressional Record: April 14, 1997 (Senate), [Page S3126-S3127]
From the Congressional Record Online via GPO Access.

Mr. WYDEN: Mr. President, the resolution that I submit today would change the Senate rules that deny floor access to those individuals who are visually impaired and need to use guide dogs to carry out their official duties. By denying floor access to Ms. Shea and her guide dog, the Senate, in my view, is violating the Congressional Accountability Act, which requires that Congress abide by the requirements and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A guide dog is a person's vision. A guide dog is a working dog, not a pet. This guide dog is with Ms. Shea all the time. He is with her in meetings in my office. He goes with her to energy committee hearings and has even gone with her to nuclear weapons facilities.

Mr. President and colleagues, I had hoped that there would be no need to offer this resolution, but I am forced to because discrimination still persists here. Ms. Shea is being treated differently simply because she is visually impaired and needs to use a guide dog.

Now some may believe that the Senate fulfills its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. . .

Mr. REID: Will my friend yield for a unanimous-consent request?

Mr. WYDEN: Yes.

Mr. REID: I ask unanimous consent that I be added as a cosponsor of the Senator's resolution.

Mr. WELLSTONE: Mr. President, I also ask unanimous consent that I be made a cosponsor.

Mr. MURKOWSKI: I ask unanimous consent that I also be added as a cosponsor to the resolution.

The PRESIDING OFFICER: Without objection, the Senators will be added as cosponsors.

Mr. WYDEN: I thank my colleagues.

Mr. President, some believe that the Senate is fulfilling its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they provide someone to accompany Ms. Shea to the Senate floor. But let me say that an unknown staff person is no substitute for a working guide dog.

The relevant language from the Americans with Disabilities Act says that an employer must provide reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Office has said, "Reasonable accommodation [is] when an employer permits a person who is blind to use a guide dog at work."

Let us put ourselves in Ms. Shea's situation. Imagine that you need to go on the Senate floor to carry out your official duties, but, wait, you must first check your ability to see with the doorkeeper, or go to the Committee on Rules and Administration to get a resolution. I fail to see the logic of this, and I fail to see the justice behind it. Miss Shea's situation doesn't require extra financial resources nor special treatment. She just wants to do her job as a professional.

A large part of the problem seems to be a lack of understanding. So let me tell the Senate a little bit about what guide dogs do. They are working dogs, not pets. A guide dog is that person's vision, an integral part of that person's essential activities and professional responsibilities. A blind person or a visually impaired person, such as Ms. Shea, has learned to turn over her diminishing sight to her dog and trusts that dog with her safety. This guide dog has blocked Ms. Shea from oncoming traffic. He knows his left from his right. He is a marker to others that Ms. Shea is visually impaired. She has gone to the Senate Energy Committee hearings and nuclear weapons facilities. This dog has even met more just access with
respect to the Soviet Union.

Yet here in the United States, on the Senate floor, where we passed the ADA and the Congressional Accountability Act, we are refusing access to someone who needs to use a guide dog. This guide dog has a serious job, and, I might add, the dog performs it very well. This is the tool that Ms. Shea uses to be a productive member of the work force, and today we are denying her the ability to do her job to the best of her ability. Ms. Shea is part of a growing work force of persons who want to be independent, who want to be productive, and who have been raised with a can-do attitude.

Let me conclude by describing how the guide dog would work on the floor. Ms. Shea would most likely tell him to "follow me," and as they walked down the aisle, the dog would alert Ms.Shea to each step by stopping. Then Ms. Shea would say to him "find the chair," and then Ms. Shea would sit down and the dog would lay right beside her. We would all forget that the dog was even here. In leaving, Ms. Shea would tell the dog to "find the door" once again, and the dog would alert her to where all the steps are and take her right to the door.

Mr. President, that is all there is to it. It seems to me that the Senate should change its rules to ensure that there is justice for people like Ms. Shea. To tell someone like Ms. Shea that she cannot come to the Senate floor with either a white cane or a guide dog and only with an escort is demeaning. You take away her right to decide what is the best method for her to carry out her job as a professional. You take away her sense of independence. You take away her dignity. You make her dependent on others. That is not what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about.

Ms. Shea has Usher's syndrome. That is the leading cause of deaf-blindness in the United States. She has struggled and worked hard to get where she is today as a professional. She is independent and self-sufficient, and she told me that she can cope with losing her eyesight, but she should not be forced to face blatant discrimination.

It is time for the Senate to change its rules. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Rules Committee to do this. It is time to ensure that the visually impaired in our country have justice, and have justice in the way that Congress envisioned with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Congress Accountability Act. I thank my friends from Minnesota, Nevada, and Alaska for joining me as cosponsors this morning on this resolution.

Senate Resolution 71
Relative to the Congressional Accountability Act

Mr. WYDEN (for himself, Mr. Reid, Mr. Wellstone, Mr. Murkowski, and Mr. Bryan) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration:

Resolved That:

(A) An individual with a disability (as defined in section 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 [42 U.S.C. 12102]) who has or is granted the privilege of the Senate floor may bring those supporting services (including service dogs, wheelchairs, and interpreters) on the Senate floor the employing or supervising office determines are necessary to assist the disabled individual in discharging the official duties of his or her position.

(b) The employing or supervising office of a disabled individual shall administer the provisions of this resolution.

Those were Mr. Wyden's remarks and the resolution he introduced for consideration by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Tuesday morning, April 15, the Senate unanimously passed a motion stating that, until the Committee on Rules and Administration decides on a general policy with respect to assistive tools for people with disabilities on the Senate floor, the sergeant at arms, who is the officer charged with enforcing the rules of the Senate, is to make individual decisions in each case in which a person seeking entry uses a mobility aid. The sergeant at arms was asked to rule on Ms. Shea's request to enter the Senate chamber that morning, and to no one's surprise with the media lined up waiting for the answer, he announced that she could use her dog while she was on the Senate floor. At 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, Moira Shea and Beau were given unanimous permission to enter the Senate, and the event was replayed by all the television networks that evening.

It was certainly gratifying to find virtually everyone in America lined up in support of a blind woman's right to use her mobility method of choice. It was valuable positive publicity to have the woman in question be a Congressional Fellow assigned to the Senate of the United States. It is even an indication of progress that a woman who has steadfastly refused to affiliate herself with the organized blind movement is still prepared to stand up for her rights and conduct herself with dignity and restraint under pressure. It was particularly refreshing to have the media turn immediately to the National Federation of the Blind rather than an agency spokesperson for comment and perspective in a case of discrimination against a blind person.

It is regrettable, however, that so many reporters covering this story and average citizens talking about it came away with the impression that Moira Shea, and by extension, all blind people, are dependent on dogs or human guides. A member of Senator Wyden's staff assured the Braille Monitor with tears in his voice that he doesn't think of Beau as a dog; "He is a person, a member of this staff!" Senator Wyden himself referred in his speech to a guide dog as the blind person's "vision." The subtext of most of the commentary that came out of this event seemed to be that Senator Byrd was picking on a poor blind woman just because she needs a dog to take her where she's going.

In fact, Senator Byrd was distressed and dismayed to find himself portrayed as the heavy in this event, according to a member of his staff. On April 15 Senate Resolution 72 was introduced and has also now gone to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration for its consideration. Senator Byrd has requested that consideration be expedited. Here is the text:

Senate Resolution 72

To allow disabled persons or Senate employees seeking access to the Senate floor the ability to bring what supporting services are necessary for them to execute their official duties.

In the Senate of the United States
April 15, 1997

Mr. Kerry (for himself, Mr. Wyden, Mr. Reid, Mr. Wellstone, Mr. Murkowski, and Mr. Bryan) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration.

Resolution

To allow disabled persons or Senate employees seeking access to the Senate floor the ability to bring what supporting services are necessary for them to execute their official duties.

Resolved, that an individual with a disability who has or is granted the privilege of the Senate floor may bring such supporting services on the Senate floor, which the Senate Sergeant at Arms determines are necessary and appropriate to assist such disabled individuals in discharging the official duties of his or her position until the Committee on Rules and Administration has the opportunity to fully consider a permanent rules change.

Until the Committee on Rules and Administration determines appropriate rules to govern the use of assistive tools allowed on the floor of the Senate, the sergeant at arms will be making the decisions. From off-the-record conversations with staff members in that office, it seems pretty clear that, had Ms. Shea been using a white cane or wheelchair, no problem would have arisen. Once again it seems to have been the guide dog, which appears to some people to resemble a pet, that caused the confusion and the questions.

Some people expressed anger and frustration because this incident seemed to be a clear infraction of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Congressional Accountability Act, which makes the Congress subject to the ADA. But as Dr. Jernigan said to NBC News when they called before dawn Tuesday morning, April 15, "We have to get beyond the question of whether or not an incident like this one is illegal. Everyone must come to understand that denying a blind person the use of a guide dog is simply wrong. Incidents like this one will continue to occur until people recognize and respect the right of disabled people to equal access."

Now that the excitement has subsided, it is reasonable to ask what has been accomplished. Moira Shea got a great deal of media attention, and a lot of Americans now know that a blind woman who uses a guide dog works for a United States Senator. An unfortunate inequity in the rules of the Senate has been exposed, and one can hope that the Committee on Rules and Administration will address this and similar questions of reasonable accommodation for those working around the Senate. The media demonstrated again that injustice, even inadvertent injustice, makes a dandy story for a day, and the National Federation of the Blind emerged as the voice of the nation's blind community providing comment and background in matters of civil rights for blind citizens. Senator Robert Byrd has again learned the hard lesson that he who fights to preserve proper procedure frequently incurs wrath from all sides. Senator Byrd's press office assures everyone who asks that he was not discriminating against Moira Shea. His actions and intentions were misunderstood. When Ed Mcdonald wrote a letter taking him to task for preventing a blind woman from using her chosen method of mobility on the Senate floor, Mr. Byrd wrote a letter to the West Virginia affiliate, which was conducting its annual convention. This is what he said:

Washington, D.C.
April 17, 1997

National Federation of the Blind
of West Virginia
Mr. Edgar McDonald
Keyser, West Virginia

Dear Friends:

On April 15, the Senate agreed to accommodate, on a case by case basis, the special needs of the disabled Americans who may be required, as part of their Senate duties, to be present in the Senate Chamber during Senate debate. Such an arrangement allows access to the Senate Chamber to disabled Senate employees and Congressional Fellows, while also following the usual procedure for altering Senate rules and regulations. In my view it is important to carefully examine all changes regarding Senate floor access, and such changes are properly the responsibility of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, on which I serve. It is important that the Senate comply with the letter and the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and make reasonable accommodations to allow disabled Senate employees and fellows to do their jobs. The action taken by the Senate, with my support, on April 15 achieves this essential goal.

I regret that my concern that the Senate follow appropriate procedures with regard to changing its rules has been misconstrued. I would be truly saddened should this incident cause West Virginians and Americans with disabilities to believe that the Senate as a body, and this Senator in particular, are insensitive to, or ignorant of, issues of concern to the disabled and the requirements of the ADA law. Please be assured that this is not the case. I have long been, and continue to be, a supporter of programs to assist the disabled and the blind. I voted in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The Senate has put forth important legislation for people with disabilities and has been home to a number of outstanding Senators with disabilities. These include former Senators Robert Dole and John Stennis and current Senators Daniel Inouye, Max Cleland, and Robert Kerry, to name a few. Disabilities do not, and should not, prevent any American from serving the nation in the U.S. Senate. It is my hope that you have a successful convention. With kind regards, I am.

Sincerely yours,

Robert C. Byrd

It is probably unrealistic to hope that a United States Senator would apologize to his blind constituents for his actions when all he had done was insist that the Senate's own rules be followed, but one can hope that he has learned to pay more attention to the discrimination of all kinds facing blind Americans. Despite the media feeding frenzy on April 15 and the probable modifications in the Senate rules, it is hard to see that this episode accomplished much. Unfortunately, discrimination still flourishes in our society and the public still views blind people as victims who always seem to need to be rescued. The fight for first-class citizenship with all its attendant rights and responsibilities has been advanced a little, but there is still plenty of opportunity for all of us to join the battle.