Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Minnesota. Rep. Westrom becomes first blind person to lead a state House debate

From In Forum:

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Torrey Westrom (pictured) hopes his historic moment helps other Americans.

The Minnesota state representative stood in as House speaker May 17, apparently the first time a blind person has ever run state House debate anywhere in the country.

“If nothing else, hopefully, it will motivate people who have a challenge in their life,” the Elbow Lake Republican said after his experience.

On the raised podium above the House chamber, under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a House staff member stood nearby to tell Westrom when a lawmaker stood to speak. The staffer also told Westrom where the speaker was, so he could face that direction.

“We had to figure out some adaptations,” Westrom said, admitting to practicing the speaker’s job.

Westrom brought fellow representatives to their feet for a standing ovation at one point when a lawmaker asked for a recorded vote, which requires 10 people to raise their hands in agreement.

“Seeing 11 hands,” Westrom said as he began to approve the vote, but he was interrupted by laugher and then sustained applause.

Later, Westrom said it helps to use humor about his blindness to put others at ease.

Over the years, Westrom has joked about driving cars and he once was an umpire for a House-Senate softball game.

Westrom also has talked to others who are blind and those who serve the blind. At one of those meetings in the Capitol, for instance, he explained to young blind people how he matches colors in his wardrobe and that he spent hours when first elected learning to navigate hallways, tunnels and meeting rooms of the Capitol complex.

Regular House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Lake, thanked Westrom when he returned to the rostrum to run the House after being away about an hour.

Westrom said he expects to be temporary speaker again and said he appreciates Zellers asking him to be speaker. It is common for other representatives to fill in for Zellers, especially near the end of the legislative session when he is involved in negotiations.

House staff members checked with the National Conference of State Legislatures, where there was no evidence any blind person has acted as speaker.

At age 14, in 1987, Westrom lost his eyesight in a car accident. He graduated from Bemidji State University and became a legislator a year later, in 1996.

Since being in the House, he has earned a law degree. He also owns a real estate management business.

In his 15th year as a legislator, Westrom is chairman of the House Civil Law Committee. Married with three children, he sometimes is mentioned as a candidate for higher office.