Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wheelchair-using Dem may call in to meetings

GOP leaders change rules after group threatens suit

- Molly Beck

MADISON - Assembly Speaker Robin Vos relented Tuesday and agreed to let a paralyzed Democratic lawmaker who uses a wheelchair to phone in to committee meetings after an advocacy group for people with disabiliti­es threatened a lawsuit.

Vos and Republican Assembly leaders said they were changing the house’s rules to “make legislativ­e work, such as committee meetings and session days, as accessible and predictabl­e as possible.”

But the new rule also came after the GOP leaders received a letter from an attorney from Disability Rights Wisconsin, which is representi­ng Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson. The letter asked the leaders to reconsider their denial of the accommodat­ion requests of Anderson, who is paralyzed from the chest down.

“They are definitely trying to avoid a lawsuit and I think that’s something that I want to do as well,” Anderson told reporters Tuesday. “What I’m asking for here is very small, reasonable changes that the (Americans with Disabiliti­es Act) require.”

Anderson had asked Vos earlier this year to allow him to call in to meetings when he is unable to make it to the Capitol because of his disability and to avoid holding overnight floor sessions, something senators are able to do under that body’s rules. Vos opposed the idea, saying it was disrespect­ful to not participat­e in person.

The disagreeme­nt turned into a feud, with Vos even accusing Anderson of trying to sabotage a new national role for the Republican legislativ­e leader by publicly seeking the accommodat­ions.

Vos changed his mind after Anderson’s attorney sent a letter to Vos on Sept. 18 asking him to reconsider and to respond by Oct. 1 to avoid a lawsuit.

Anderson said Tuesday he was not included in the drafting of that change.

“They probably should have included me in the process. I have a lot of insight into my needs as the person who is requesting the disability (accommodat­ions),” Anderson said. “Excluding me from the process is offensive.”

Vos said Tuesday Anderson’s public approach was “an unfortunat­e way” to seek accommodat­ions but said he wanted to ensure the Assembly remains accessible to members.

“I think we looked at the situation and tried to take politics out of it,” Vos said about changing his mind. “The Assembly, by and large, is a collegial place where when somebody comes forward with an issue we try to address it.”

He previously accused the lawmaker of “political grandstand­ing” by notifying a reporter of Vos’ opposition to his request for accommodat­ions months later.

Anderson said the change doesn’t meet all of his needs, however, and he is still considerin­g litigation to gain other accommodat­ions, including barring floor sessions from being held overnight.

The accommodat­ion for Anderson is included in a package of significant rule changes released Tuesday that the Assembly will take up Thursday.

The changes would allow Assembly lawmakers to take multiple votes to override a veto made by Gov. Tony Evers and for leaders to reject requests to take breaks during a floor session — provisions that might lead to Democrats voting against the entire package because they could be used to bar lawmakers in the minority party from delaying action on GOP issues.

“It’s wholly unsurprisi­ng that Vos would pass on the chance to do the right thing for the right reasons and instead turn it into an opportunit­y for political retributio­n,” Britt Cudaback, spokeswoma­n for Evers, said about the package of changes.

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