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Ask Matt ... how Cawthorn will navigate in Congress

Q. What physical challenges will newly elected Madison Cawthorn face in our nation’s Capital given his physical disability?


Having defeated Lynda Bennett in the Republican primary and Moe Davis in the general election, Madison Cawthorn will soon be sworn in as the representative in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district. That seat was held by Mark Meadows but vacated last March when Meadows resigned to become the President Trump’s chief of staff.
The U.S. Capitol is 200 years old and naturally not built to today’s standards, but the building has been retrofitted so there are no barriers for those with disabilities. All doors, meeting rooms, rest rooms, and the house floor itself are fully accessible without assistance from staff. A spokesperson at the Capitol’s Office of Accessibility Service said, “If anything is needed by a congressman it is accommodated.”
There is one exception – the subway. The Rayburn Building where most House Members have offices is a five minute walk to the Capitol but only a minute’s ride by underground train. The subway cannot accommodate wheelchairs but there is a walkway in the tunnel with elevators at each end. “I’m familiar with the tunnels,” said Cawthorn, who once spent time in former Rep. Meadows’s D.C. office. “I can go just about anywhere. After six years, navigating in a wheelchair has become second nature.”
Cawthorn is undaunted with the physical challenges that may await. The Henderson County native said he was never dissuaded to run for office because of his disability, which he deemed a strength. “From a young age, I persevered and was able to overcome much pain,” he said. “That challenge has given me the grit and determination to do the things I want to do.”
Cawthorn is not the first wheelchair-using person elected to Congress, nor even the first from North Carolina. John P. East, a conservative Republican who was elected to the Senate in 1980, used a wheelchair. The Illinois native found his way to North Carolina as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune where he contracted polio. Soldiering on, he earned a law degree but eventually found his way back to our state to teach at East Carolina University. Dr. East was an inspirational professor, witnessed by this writer and ECU alumnus, who enjoyed his political science class in the mid-1960s. At that time, Professor East he was still able to walk with braces. East ran for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and garnered 61% of Henderson County’s votes helping him narrowly defeat incumbent Sen. Robert Morgan.
John East was an articulate and well-respected intellectual who served alongside North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms while confined to a wheelchair. East’s untimely death at the age of 55 shocked many in the state and in Congress. I located Chip East Harrell of Greenville, NC, daughter of the late senator. Harrell spoke of his mental strength and determination and his advocacy for stronger ADA requirements. “Despite his polio disability he never let his physical limitations slow him down from serving his country – and serving it well,” she said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois lost the use of her legs when the Blackhawk helicopter she was flying took a hit in Iraq in 2004. A Democrat, Duckworth was on the vice president “short list” this past year.
Navigating the halls of the Capitol is not an issue for Jim Langevin who has only the use of one arm that guides his motorized chair. At the age of 16, Langevin was injured in a firearm accident that left him paralyzed. The Rhode Island congressman was the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.
Florida Rep. Brian Mast, an ordnance technician, was wounded clearing a path for U.S. Army Rangers in Afghanistan. He proudly walks with two artificial legs. “I know about Rep. Mast,” Cawthorn said. “He is an American hero. If he can do it without legs, I can sure do it.”