Senate Turns Blind Eye To Disabilities Act
The Senate was caught short in its compliance with federal anti-discrimination rules Monday when a visually impaired aide to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was barred from bringing her guide dog onto the Senate floor.
Wyden wanted senators to allow Moira Shea, a blind congressional fellow working in his office, to bring her yellow retriever, Beau, into the chamber during a debate on nuclear waste.
When his request was rejected, Wyden said “a guide dog is a person’s vision” and accused the Senate of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., telephoned his objection to the cloakroom, a Byrd aide said.
Byrd, a former majority leader who is widely considered a guardian of Senate protocol, said he did not object to having a dog to the chamber, but rather that any changes in Senate rules should go through the normal process.
“Matters such as this ought to go to the Committee on Rules and Administration for any change in regulations or rules deemed necessary,” Byrd said.
The refusal to admit the canine came despite a 2-year-old law that says Congress is bound to follow the same laws it imposes on others. Among the laws Congress is supposed to follow: the disabilities act, which bars discrimination against persons with disabilities.
“The Senate should change its rules,” Wyden declared. “To tell someone like Ms. Shea she cannot come to the floor is demeaning.”
Wyden added that Shea, an economist who has worked in the government for 20 years, has taken her dog into government offices, Senate hearings and even to nuclear weapons facilities.
“By denying floor access to Miss Shea and her good dog,” Wyden said, “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.”
The accountability act was adopted by Congress 27 months ago as part of the Republican House’s “Contract With America.” It requires Congress to observe the same workplace health and safety - and anti-discrimination - laws that other institutions and businesses must obey.
Byrd was the only member of Congress who voted against the act, arguing that it was an infringement on the Constitution’s separation-of-powers doctrine and could give an unscrupulous president undue influence over the legislative branch.
Shea, 41, who has worked for Wyden since January and before that for Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., as well as the Energy and Commerce departments, waited in a nearby room after being barred entry to the chamber.
She suffers from a eye disease that has seriously impaired her vision, and she has depended on Beau for the past two years to help her get around.
Shea said refusing her access to the chamber violates her rights. “I can’t walk away from it. I really need to defend my rights here,” she said in an interview.
Greg Casey, the Senate’s sergeant at arms, said access is “a privilege that has to be granted. It’s not a right to be given away. … Dogs, animals, don’t have privilege to the floor.”
The Senate has no formal rule prohibiting guide dogs on the Senate floor, but outside of senators, former senators, current House members and the four Senate officers, anyone going into the chamber must receive formal permission. Any senator can block someone not automatically allowed entry.
Although selected Senate staffers have prior approval to get onto the Senate floor, Shea, as a congressional fellow, had to receive unanimous consent from all senators to gain admittance. Such consent normally is routine, said a spokesman for Wyden.
The Senate sergeant at arms had offered to escort Shea into the chamber without her dog, but that was unacceptable, Wyden said. The Senate also prohibits anyone from carrying a cane into the chamber.
Wyden said the inability of Shea to take in her dog was an affront to disabled Americans. He introduced a resolution that would require that disabled people be allowed to take with them to the Senate floor the “supporting services including service dogs” they deem necessary.
The four other senators in the chamber at the time - Sens. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, Richard Bryan, D-Nev., and Reid - quickly asked to become co-sponsors. The resolution goes to the Rules Committee, which deals with the operations of the Senate.