AUSTIN, Texas -- A broken elevator almost canceled part of the first photo-op of 2015 for new Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the first U.S. governor in nearly 30 years to use a wheelchair.
Without the elevator, Abbott and a teenager with cerebral palsy would have been unable to get to the third floor of an Austin high school, where they were to unveil new automatic doors at a ribbon-cutting event.
Thanks to a fingers-crossed fix, the elevator was repaired in time. But the snag demonstrated the complications involved when the state’s highest-ranking public official is paralyzed from the waist down.
Abbott’s physical limitations provide more exposure to the difficulties faced by disabled Americans, and the new governor could be an asset to organizations pressing for changes to ease the public lives of the disabled in Texas and elsewhere.
But while advocates take some pride in having a governor with visible disabilities, their optimism is muted by Abbott’s record. And the Republican is making clear that his agenda doesn’t include some major reforms sought by agencies representing the disabled, including a proposal to get Texas to stop fighting lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Efforts to close state centers for people with intellectual disabilities - another priority for disability groups - could also fail in the first legislative session under Abbott, who has ordered lawmakers to prioritize tax cuts and border security.
“He talks about the economic environment, job creation. He talks about universities getting to top tiers. But very little about health care,” said Dennis Borel, executive director of Coalition with Texans for Disabilities. “To me, that tells me there is ground to be made.”
The governor says the visibility of his position alone is an asset to the disabled, and he believes they will benefit from his economic agenda, along with the rest of the state.
“One of the things that people with disabilities want as much as anything else is economic opportunity,” Abbott said. “Having the chief executive of the state be a person with a disability sends a message to employers across the state that they can hire people with disabilities.”
The disabled in the U.S. are unemployed at a rate that is roughly double the rest of the population.
The 57-year-old Abbott has used a wheelchair since he was hit by a falling tree while taking a jog as a young law student in 1984. The story is a major part of his public persona. As an icebreaker, he often makes quips about his injury: “Christopher Reeve was faster than a speeding bullet. I was slower than a falling tree.” His “spine of steel” is a well-worn line in screeds against Washington.
Abbott says he will make a bigger impact on disability issues than any of his predecessors and won early praise for recommending an extra $105 million to ease the backlog of disabled Texans needing personal assistants. But that amount would still keep pay for those workers near fast-food wages in a job plagued by high turnover.
Disabled people are also disappointed that Abbott - who sued the Obama administration 30 times as attorney general - is bent on keeping Texas among a handful of states that use a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity to try to avoid being sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was adopted 25 years ago.
Abbott has cited a duty to protect taxpayers from court costs, and he has signaled that he will not support a bill that would let the lawsuits go forward. He promises to leave a mark in other ways, but there is visible tension: The teenager with cerebral palsy at the Austin high school, who had an Abbott bumper sticker on his wheelchair, discovered that someone surreptitiously slapped an “ADA civil rights” logo over his Abbott sticker while attending an Americans with Disabilities Act anniversary celebration.
The group United Cerebral Palsy, which conducts a state-by-state ranking of disability access across the nation, puts Texas next to last in how well its Medicaid programs serve residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Even the building where Abbott goes to work each day has notable shortcomings: There is no wheelchair access at the Capitol’s main entrance, where most rallies and events are held.
Abbott is the first Texas governor to use a wheelchair and the first in the U.S. since Alabama’s George Wallace left office in 1987. A collapsible metal ramp the state purchased for Abbott to ascend the dais in the House and Senate is among the few modifications made to accommodate a governor in a wheelchair.
Rhode Island congressman Jim Langevin, a Democrat who is the first quadriplegic elected to the U.S. , received a customized lectern and forced the chamber to finally make the speaker’s rostrum wheelchair accessible. He said he feels a responsibility to bring down barriers for others with disabilities and says he can relate to Abbott in some ways.
“I don’t think we should Gov. Abbott simply because he uses a wheelchair to be a leader,” said Lex Frieden, a quadriplegic in Houston and one of the architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “This should not be an area that any leader ignores.”