Wisconsin State Rep. Jimmy Anderson has been in a firestorm of controversy as he challenges a decision by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to deny him reasonable accommodation under the Americans for Disability Act. Anderson made history in 2016 as the first quadriplegic to win election to the state Legislature. He has been in a wheelchair and has required attendant care for his basic needs ever since a 2010 auto accident caused by a drunk driver in which his mother and father and young brother died.
Anderson is asking Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to change the Assembly rules to allow him to attend some hearings remotely via speakerphone, as is already common practice in the State Senate. But so far, Vos has refused. Anderson first made this request in January, but Vos is denying this, and has claimed that Anderson is “grandstanding” rather than going through channels. He further maintains that if Anderson is allowed to attend hearings remotely, this would be “disrespectful to citizens who travel great distances to legislative hearings to be there in person.”
“I think that the big reason is that I think Speaker Voss misunderstands the difference between traveling a long distance, and what it’s like living with a disability,” Anderson said in a phone interview. “I have access to my cell phone 24/7, so I’m able to participate in conversations like the one we’re having right now on my phone. But the person who comes in the morning, my home health aide, maybe she’s having difficulty getting her son off to daycare and she’s running behind. I’m not able to get out of bed in the morning until she gets here. And so I end up having to rely on a lot of other people in order to live my life.
“Now if I have access to my phone, I could participate in committee hearings while waiting for her to arrive,” Anderson adds. “But if Speaker Vos is gonna require me to be there in person, then it’s going to make it almost impossible sometimes for me to be able to be available for some of these meetings. And I think it’s real ignorance on his part about what it’s like to live my life as a person with the disability.”
The State Senate, which is led by Vos’s GOP colleagues, supports a different standard. For a variety of reasons, legislators can report in remotely via phone and be a part of the process. Anderson questions why the Assembly rules couldn’t be changed to reflect this different standard.
“I mean the idea that it’s what he called ‘disrespectful’ is wrong,” he says. “Are you saying that the entire way that the Senate operates is ‘disrespectful’? And not only that, but I mean we have the suicide task force that I’m currently serving on where we’re going across the state talking to folks about issues around disability around suicide, and I’ve been allowed to call into those hearings. I didn’t hear him calling that ‘disrespectful.’
“Not only that, but we had a Republican colleague calling into those committee hearings last time who doesn’t have a disability,” Anderson continues. “And as far as I know, he wasn’t calling that disrespectful. I just think that the speaker is just really misinformed on this issue.”
This issue first arose in a big way during the infamous marathon lame-duck legislative sessions in December of 2018 that extended well into the wee hours of the morning. This was problematic for Anderson because he has a limit to how long he can be in his wheelchair, and attendant care options are limited that late at night. At the time, Anderson could not be present for many of the crucial votes, and under one interpretation of state law, which states that all legislators must have equal access to each session, that fact may have invalidated those sessions. More generally, Anderson believes that these sessions fly in the face of good and transparent government process, and hurt everybody.
“Absolutely, this hurts everybody,” he says. “As we started [the current legislative session in January of this year], I approached Democratic leadership and said, ‘Hey, I’ve learned what it’s like being a legislator with a disability in my first term, and these are the accommodations that I’m going to need.’ And one of them was that we no longer do those overnight sessions, because it’s unsafe and I just simply can’t be in my chair overnight like other people in the legislature can endure. And you know when they’re sending out emails at 4 o’clock in the morning telling you to be on the floor in 15 minutes, I think it’s just a ridiculous way to run the Legislature.”
As a compromise this past week, Vos offered to arrange for a videographer to capture any hearings that Anderson could not attend, so that he could watch them after the fact. Anderson has declined this offer, saying that under the ADA, and legislative precedent, he has the right to the kind of fully interactive participation in a session that access via speakerphone would allow, one which allow him to comment on the hearings and ask questions in real-time.
“It’s that I know that I only have so much time left in this world. And you know, when I see them again, I just want them to be proud. I want them to know that I didn’t waste the opportunity that was unfortunately taken away from them. And so it’s kind what’s pushing me every day to try to make this world at least a little bit better of a place before I leave it.”
-State Rep. Jimmy Anderson, on carrying on his family’s legacy,
Anderson is currently gathering the signatures of his colleagues in support of an Assembly rule change, but so far Vos has been unyielding. If no change is forthcoming, Anderson’s only recourse may be to sue the Speaker. Vos, however, claims that the ADA does not apply, because, technically, an elected representative is not an employee of the Legislature, and believes that he would prevail. Regardless, Anderson’s supporters argue that allowing Anderson to participate remotely via phone would be in the spirit of the ADA, and would simply be doing the right thing.
Beyond this immediate controversy, Anderson’s groundbreaking visible presence in the state Legislature as someone with a physical disability has many other positive implications, in ways resonant with the history-making service of his colleagues of color and his openly LGBT colleagues. For Anderson, whose late mother was a Mexican immigrant, it is simply a matter of basic civil rights.
“The idea of inclusion is such an important part of this process,” he observes. “You know, we don’t live each other’s lives, and we all bring our own unique experiences and backgrounds to these jobs. And that’s why it’s such a wonderful thing that anyone can run for these positions, and add their experiences, their ideas, their thoughts, and their uniqueness to these positions.”
“As far as I know, I think I’m the first quadriplegic to be in the Legislature, and so that comes with its own unique challenges,” he adds. “And so when we’re there discussing legislation I may have first-hand perspectives that no one else has.
Anderson brings up a recent bill that dealt with Airbnb where he pointed out to his colleagues that very few Airbnbs tend to be accessible.
“Or if Uber were to completely eliminate the taxi companies, the fact is that Uber doesn’t have to be accessible, and so there wouldn’t be opportunities for people in wheelchairs or other disabilities to be able to access taxi cabs,” he says. “And so it’s little things like that where because of how I live my life, it’s a unique life, and I’m able to add those unique aspects to the conversations when we’re discussing bills or ideas in the Legislature. And so being able to add your own little special flavor of life I think is just incredibly important to the legislative process.
“Being part of the process is key to actually making a difference because, you know, when people see me doing the job, they realize like, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy like everybody else and obviously he can do the job, and why wouldn’t we do everything we can to try to include him in the process?’”
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed, Anderson says, the name of the game was inclusion.
“It was just giving everybody with a disability an opportunity to be full participants in life. And whether that’s daily life like getting access to restaurant or hotels, or being able to run for office, I think that this is an incredibly important part of the ADA,” he says. “It’s just making sure that people are part of this process. Then we start breaking down those barriers and teaching people that we’re all just human beings like everybody else. And we all deserve a fair shot and achieving that the dreams and goals that we want to achieve. That’s what it all comes down to.”
Through his service on the Legislature’s suicide prevention task force, Anderson sees the power of having people offer up their own stories drawn out of their own lived experience.
“Again, people’s firsthand experiences mean something. I think, most movingly, we’ve been meeting people who have talked about their own experiences with suicide,” he says. “And talking about either losing family members or even themselves having had these kinds of ideations. And so I’ve learned a ton.”
“It wasn’t an issue that I knew a lot about. But I had one constituent in particular who had been doing it a lot of work in this issue, and she inspired me to want to get onto the task force,” Anderson adds. “And I’m really excited because it’s usually these kinds of unique task forces that tend to come out with some really good legislation that doesn’t turn into partisan bickering. It actually turns into solutions for the people of Wisconsin, so I think we’re gonna come with a slate of bills that are going to really help the situation. “
Anderson’s own lived experience is reflected in his leadership on initiatives that seek to eliminate inequities in health care. When he was 24 years old, a drunk driver hit the car carrying his whole family just outside their hometown in California.
“In my accident back in 2010, I lost my mom, dad and little brother, and I was paralyzed in that accident,” he remembers. “And the first experience that I had was, after coming out of the coma, was the doctor asking me if I was ready for my spinal fusion surgery. If I’d said no, he’s like, ‘Well, your neck would remain a jumble of broken bones,’ and I was like, ‘Well okay, let’s go ahead and move forward to the surgery.’
“And then after waking up, my insurance company came at me and said, ‘Well now you’re nearing your lifetime limits. We’re going to be kicking you off your health insurance.’ Great! Yeah okay now I was lucky that literally two days later, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act kicked in, and they got rid of those lifetime limits. But it could have turned out very differently.”
“It’s kind of a crazy story, but after that, I learned that, hey, public policy doesn’t change by accident,” he adds. “You kind of have to get involved and get passionate and fight for these things. And so that kind of planted the first seed for me [to consider a career in public service]. And after rehabilitation, I got my law degree, and I started a non-profit to help victims of drunk driving. And I fell in love with helping people through that nonprofit. And I thought, ‘How can I keep doing this on a broader scale?’ And that’s what eventually led me to running for office.”
For Anderson, his reasons for seeking office were even more personal, in that they were a means of carrying on his family’s legacy, after they died in that tragic 2010 accident.
“It’s that I know that I only have so much time left in this world,” he says. “And you know, when I see them again, I just want them to be proud. I want them to know that I didn’t waste the opportunity that was unfortunately taken away from them. And so it’s kind what’s pushing me every day to try to make this world at least a little bit better of a place before I leave it.”