WASHINGTON -- Jeff Person, a Falls, Va., native on his fifth internship at the U.S. Capitol, wheeled into freshman U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's office several weeks ago and blurted out, "Wow. I want to work here."
Person has arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder that affected development and function of both his arms and legs. Unable to walk, he travels around the Capitol complex using a motorized scooter.
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"I've followed her since her start in politics," Pearson said of the Hoffman Estates Democrat, as he wrapped up a day of work in the office's "leg pit," an area bustling with staffers that in other offices is often cluttered with paperwork. Here, to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the area is kept clear for a wheelchair to pass through. While Person has had four prior internships, none have been quite like this.
Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq War veteran elected last November, made an early decision to make her entire office accessible to those with disabilities -- one part of her determination to serve as a voice on disability issues.
That determination was perhaps most on display on the cold January day of her congressional swearing in, when Duckworth rolled up to the Senate steps. Resting her arms upon two canes, Duckworth got out of her wheelchair and, with the help of fellow freshman Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield, climbed up 15 of the 45 steps and settled into formation to wait.
Positioned alongside other members of Congress, wearing a bright red overcoat and two prosthetic legs, Duckworth stood without a handrail for more than a half-hour, waiting for Republican Mark Kirk, Illinois' junior senator from Highland Park, to make his ascent to the upper chamber for his first time after he suffered a stroke a year before, in January 2012.
"It's hard for me to stand still for that long," said Duckworth, who lost her legs and whose right arm was severely damaged in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter she was flying in Iraq.
But she did it, she said, "to support the disability community."
"To me, that was a message. If I can stand on the steps of the Capitol with my artificial legs, and Mark Kirk can climb up the steps of the Capitol, then wherever you are in your recovery, you can do this, too."
"I was there," she said, "to support the senator, but I thought it was an important illustration of what you can truly do with your life."
Duckworth defeated Tea Party firebrand Joe Walsh last November in a bid for the 8th Congressional District, which includes portions of Cook, Kane and DuPage counties.
Five months in, Duckworth is emerging as a voice for her politically middle-of-the-road district and for the disabled community. Unlike many other freshman members of Congress who might be struggling to get noticed in their first months, Duckworth's story -- her injuries and yearlong recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., -- is nationally known. She frequently is invited to be a guest of honor at events, including an April 16 Easter Seals event where she handed actor Gary Sinise an award, saying that her Army buddies often kidded about Sinise's double-amputee Lt. Dan from "Forrest Gump" as they were recovering from injuries at Walter Reed.
There are other events she has purposely skipped.
"I've gotten to the point, if I'm invited to events that are not wheelchair accessible, I don't go," she said. "I've had to send notes and call up leadership and say, 'I will not be attending because it's not wheelchair accessible.' Could we have figured it out in terms of somebody carrying me into the event? Probably. But it's not about me, it's about my constituents; I have a large population of people with disabilities who look to me to be there. I want every place that I go to be accessible to everyone."
After finding it was impossible for someone in a wheelchair to open the heavy wooden doors to her office -- which had to be pulled outward -- Duckworth had a mechanical opener installed at wheelchair height.
Duckworth sings the praises of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, as well as Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who removed her from the traditional freshman office lottery so she could obtain a first-floor office near a wheelchair-accessible entrance on the west side of the Cannon House Office Building.
Duckworth requested her office be fully wheelchair accessible by the time of her Jan. 3 swearing in. Still, other projects await. Duckworth has found that the congressional gym does not feature a wheelchair-accessible shower, a project expected to be completed by summer, architect Stephen Ayers said.
Since her injuries in 2004, Duckworth has come to accept her wheelchair, prosthetics and canes -- with extras stored in her office bathroom -- as "equipment."
"If this is what I need to get from my office to the Capitol as quickly as possible it's what I'm going to use, and there's no value judgment because I have artificial limbs. It's just tools."