U.S. Representative for Rhode Island Second Congressional District for the last 20 years.
Jim Langevin: (00:01)
I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. That even if you have maybe philosophical differences about the size of government or whether or not government should be active or passive, there’s always a way to find common ground on something. We just have to have that primary focus of wanting to compromise, wanting to find that common ground. And we can do it.
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: (00:35)
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice. Today in the podcast, I have the privilege and honor to speak with Congressman Jim Landrigan, who’s been serving as the United States Representative for Rhode Island Second Congressional District for 20 years, since 2001. Jim has been very active in many different areas. For example, cybersecurity readiness and matters relating to our armed services.
Jay Ruderman: (01:06)
But in this conversation we’ll be focusing on his work on the laws and reforms regarding people with disabilities. This is a topic dear to Jim’s heart as he is also the first quadriplegic to serve in the US House of Representatives.
Jay Ruderman: (01:20)
Hi, Jim, happy to have you here and welcome to my podcast. So I would like to talk to you a little bit about what happened at the beginning of 2021, but before I get to that, I want to bring you back to a particularly sensitive time in your life back to 1980 and a day that changed your life forever. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened to you at that time?
Jim Langevin: (01:50)
Sure. Well, early on in my life, my early teenage years, I had been involved in a police cadet program in my local community, Warwick, Rhode Island, and I really fell in love with law enforcement. From January to June we would take classes about different aspects of police work. And then in June we’d take a test and the top 10 high scores got a summer job for the summer. And I’d been involved with the program for about four years and I thought my career path in life would be becoming a police officer and I hoped perhaps, maybe someday to go on to become an FBI agent. But as life often happens it has other plans for you and that certainly was the case in my circumstance.
Jim Langevin: (02:40)
I was getting ready to go on my shift one afternoon, it was a Friday afternoon in August, 1980, and walked into the police locker room. I was getting ready to go on my shift and my fellow cadet and I were talking to two police officers. One of them had just purchased a new weapon, the other officer asked to look at it and not realizing it was loaded the officer pulled the trigger and there was a bullet already in the pipe of the gun and the gun went off, bullet actually ricocheted off a locker and went through my neck and, unfortunately, it’s severed my spinal cord and I’ve been paralyzed ever since.
Jay Ruderman: (03:20)
I can’t even imagine what you went through on a personal level. Can you tell us how you went from that incident, which obviously changed your life, to your involvement in politics?
Jim Langevin: (03:36)
Well, I was very fortunate to have an incredible community that rallied behind my family and I at a time when we needed it the most and it made a profound difference. And no doubt I recovered because of my family, my faith and my community, and those three things coming together provided an incredible support system that gave me the confidence to and the really desire to want to recover and do something positive with my life. I saw how a community could make a difference in someone’s life when you had a group of people coming together with a single-minded determination to make a difference in someone’s life and how it could effect change. And, as I said, I wanted to get back if I ever could. Someone had suggested that I might think about getting involved in public service, in government or politics at some point.
Jim Langevin: (04:34)
And someone suggested I run and I thought about it. And I did in the course of doing that, I found that not only did I feel like I was giving back, but I also found something that I really enjoyed and started to develop a new passion for. I served as both delegate and secretary at the constitutional convention. Then a couple of years later the opportunity came about for me to run for state representative for a state rep that was retiring in my neighborhood. I ran and was elected and I served in the general assembly as a state rep for six years and then was on the ballot statewide to run for secretary of state and was elected there and served there as secretary of state for the next six years before running for Congress.
Jay Ruderman: (05:16)
So, Jim, let’s talk about politics because you’ve been involved in politics for a long time and you’ve been in Congress for a long time, tell us how Congress has changed, particularly the interaction between the parties and how it was when you first got into Congress and how it is in today’s Congress?
Jim Langevin: (05:37)
Yeah. So Congress certainly has changed a lot. It’s become more partisan unfortunately. I thought it could be pretty contentious when I first arrived and that was the year that, of course, Al Gore was defeated for president by George W. Bush and that was really a big disappointment because after the eight years of President Clinton and seeing a balanced budget and a budget surplus as far as the eye could see, saw great prospects for things that could be done for the country with those policies continuing. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It was George Bush that was elected president, but he was president. I went to the inauguration. I was honored to be there. And I said, “Well, it’s a new day and we’re going to make the most of it.” And I pride myself on solving problems, wanting to solve problems anyway, and finding common sense solutions to issues that are affecting families or my community. The process was more partisan than I had expected. To be honest with you now, looking back, 20 years ago, those were the good old days-
Jay Ruderman: (06:46)
Jim Langevin: (06:47)
… in comparison to how partisan it’s become now, unfortunately,
Jay Ruderman: (06:51)
I know you’re a very well respected member of Congress and especially liked by members of your party. Do you have interactions with Republicans on a day-to-day basis and on Capitol Hill?
Jim Langevin: (07:05)
I do. And I pride myself on being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress. At least I would like to think I am. Although I have differences with many of my Republican colleagues, on every major issue that I’m working on I can point to a Republican that I’m working with, and things like cybersecurity, which I spend a lot of time on that issue, and career elective education and on things like disabilities issues, I’ve got someone like Don Young or Cathy McMorris Rodgers that I work with on issues or Susan Collins, of course, the aisle on the Senate side. She and I recently worked on a Lifespan Respite Care Bill together.
Jim Langevin: (07:44)
So a lot of the bipartisanship doesn’t get covered in the press unfortunately. I guess it’s the really old saying, “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead, it’s not controversial.” We have members of Congress working together. It seems unfortunate that doesn’t get adequate coverage, but it does happen and I’m not the only one. There are other members of Congress that we’ve worked together and even, like I said, the Cares Act funding and other Bills, that many of them were bipartisan.
Jay Ruderman: (08:12)
So I want to get into some issues of disability, but before I do that, because I’m personally very interested in politics and follow it very closely, obviously, you’re a member of the Democratic Party, which now controls both houses of Congress and in the presidency, how do you view, as someone who’s on the inside, what is happening in the Republican Party? You mentioned leader McCarthy who is today meeting with former President Trump. It seems like there’s a tension within that party about which direction it’s going to go in. What are your insights into that?
Jim Langevin: (08:58)
Yeah, no doubt there is tension in the Republican party and they’re almost … The divisions, [inaudible 00:09:05] the traditional Republicans, the Ronald Reagan Republicans that believe in smaller government, lower taxes. And then you’ve got the Trump Republicans that in many ways just want to … They don’t respect the norms of politics and process and in many ways have tried to break those old norms and would rather break the system rather than fix the system or work within it. And it’s caused real damage to the core foundations of our democracy. And it really came to a head on January 6th when there was this angry mob that stormed at the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government.
Jay Ruderman: (09:50)
So I want to talk a little bit about that. On January 6th during the insurrection were you inside the Capitol Building and what was it like for you while it was unfolding?
Jim Langevin: (09:59)
I was not in the Capitol, thankfully. I was actually in my office watching the proceedings on television from my office, and there were only 44 members of the House and the Senate allowed on the floor at any one time and that was because of Corona virus. So they were going to rotate us in throughout the day and I hadn’t got the go ahead to head over yet. Around two o’clock or so the House went into recess a couple of times. It was a little odd. I didn’t realize … I wasn’t expecting them to go into recess but just to keep going right straight through, but [inaudible 00:10:34] happening is that they recessed a couple of times, and then we started getting alerts from the Capitol police, both by email and text that, “The Capitol had been breached. Lock your doors, shelter in place until the situation gets resolved.”
Jim Langevin: (10:49)
Then we turned over to MSNBC and you could see what was happening: the angry mob, the crowds streaming into the Capitol. We saw one woman being brought out on a stretcher, clearly had some type of wound. We assumed it to be a gunshot from the amount of blood that we could see and the bandaging on the wound. It was really just horrific and just so sad to see that this was actually happening live as we were there watching it.
Jim Langevin: (11:22)
But I wasn’t per se worried. I had to believe that the Capitol police would eventually get control of the situation, whether it’s with just the Capitol police or DC Metro police being called in or the national guard that eventually this insurrection would be squashed and proper authorities would take control of the situation. But it was unnerving. There’s no doubt to be watching this. And it made me both sad and angry at the same time because the further away I get from it, the more angry I get that we could have had a president in the White House that was basically inciting when I see this angry mob, this insurrection.
Jay Ruderman: (12:06)
Do you hold former President Trump responsible for what happened?
Jim Langevin: (12:11)
I do. And I think Mitch McConnell summed it up the best. The president assembled the mob and he, through his words incited the riot, the angry mob. It’s what we all witnessed, and words matter. And President Trump has a very loyal, hardcore following and they took him at his word when he said, “You fight like hell. You’re never going to take back your government through the weakness. March down to the Capitol. I’ll be with you.” It was just so irresponsible and it just did great damage to our country. And I also don’t think it’s over, unfortunately. You may have heard just last night that the Department of Homeland Security has issued a nationwide bulletin, an alert, warning of possible anti-government activity that the riot on the 6th actually emboldened people that are anti-government. And so it does trouble me.
Jay Ruderman: (13:16)
So I want to move into the Lifespan Respite Care Act, which you authored in 2002 and it was signed into law in 2006. For the benefit of the listeners, this Act authorizes budgets for community-based services, for family, caregivers of children, or adults of all ages with disabilities. As the Act name implies, it eases the burden of family members who take care of their loved ones. How do you feel the Act fosters independence and inclusion in society?
Jim Langevin: (13:53)
So the Lifespan Respite Care Act, which I’m very proud to be involved with and have my name associated with that Act, it goes to directly supporting the caregivers. I know how important the people are that take care of me and help me to live an independent life. My CNAs are just invaluable people, and there are many caregivers throughout the country that do this kind of work for a family member, whether it’s an elderly parent or a sick child, but they may not have much help and they can easily get overwhelmed and burnt out. You think of it, it’s a sole caregiver in a household. Imagine this: if it’s a single parent who is perhaps trying to work, keep a roof over their head and food on the table, but at the same time having to care for the elderly parent or a sick child, and do they ever get a break and who helps them?
Jim Langevin: (14:48)
So the Lifespan Respite Care Act promotes independence by helping individuals receive the care and support that they need at home. And if we had to put a dollar figure to this uncompensated care, it would probably be around … Last estimate was around $470 billion and [inaudible 00:15:07] each year. For many of these caregivers, access to respite remains elusive. So by promoting access to respite services, we ensure that family caregivers are able to take care of their own needs while continuing the rewarding, but often challenging, work of assisting their loved one.
Jay Ruderman: (15:25)
So on a personal level, how did your disability impact your family in the beginning?
Jim Langevin: (15:32)
So it definitely was life altering for my entire family. My parents initially became caregivers themselves, even my brothers at the time. I had a young sister who came along, believe it or not just three months before my accident. So here’s my parents dealing with my situation and also having to take care of an infant. And so it just changed the family dynamics certainly, puts added pressures on areas you didn’t think, financially and in other ways.
Jim Langevin: (16:06)
Eventually my mom was really insistent on this. She realized that if I was going to lead any kind of an independent life, that I was going to have to have help from the outside to assist me with just my basic daily living needs: getting up in the morning and showering and getting dressed and getting out the door and having a driver so that I could get around to get to places where I need to be. And so that definitely changed our family dynamic, that my family was there for me when I needed it the most, both emotionally, but also physically.
Jay Ruderman: (16:43)
So I’d like to talk about when the law first came into existence and you first worked on it, you were a fairly new member of Congress. Can you talk about that experience of legislating this Act when you’re fairly new?
Jim Langevin: (16:59)
Yeah. So the original Lifespan Respite Care Act was a priority for members of the health and disability community around the time that I came to Congress. And it also happened to be an issue that then Senator Hillary Clinton was interested in addressing. So showing not only could I relate to the inherent challenges of family caregiving from the experiences of my own family after my accident, but I had constituents who were facing similar challenges, balancing responsibilities of caring for a loved one with a chronic condition and taking care of themselves and they needed help. And we were looking for ways of supporting these unsung heroes because, in most cases, the alternative was more costly institutional care. So it seemed like a win-win to give families the tools to stay together and reduce the cost on the system but we’d also reduce the pressure on the caregiver themselves.
Jim Langevin: (18:01)
So Hillary led the Senate version of the Bill and I partnered with my House colleagues to lead the House version. It wasn’t without its challenges. These programs existed in some States but not for others. It was a a patchwork approach. They were often specific to certain populations, and we were attempting to reproduce a program that worked and expanded eligibility to all families and do it in the most efficient cost of way possible. And that required, of course, educating our colleagues and fighting for programs that may not have been well known at the time.
Jay Ruderman: (18:40)
So I want to jump forward to 2019 when you and several other members of Congress wanted to introduce the Lifespan Respite Care Re-authorization Act. And I’d like to get back to the issue of how you work with members of the other party, of the Republican Party, in order to move something like this forward?
Jim Langevin: (19:03)
Yeah. So initially when we first introduced the … I had introduced the Bill with my name in the lead, and then Congressman Mike Ferguson from New Jersey was the Republican lead, but they were in the majority. And so after a couple of years of doing this, it became obvious that the Republicans weren’t going to allow the Bill to pass with a Democrat’s name in the lead. So Mike and I spoke, we agreed to swap order and that his name would be first and I would be second. And lo and behold, we wound up getting the Bill passed. So, for me, it was about getting the issue passed and act into law and helping people. And that’s what we did. Fast forward now to 2019, worked with colleagues again to get this Bill passed. And then Senator Susan Collins was the lead Republican on the Senate side.
Jim Langevin: (20:02)
So, basically we needed to increase the funding levels, the authorized funding levels. I had wanted to do $200 million authorization over five years. We were not able to get that, but Senator Collins’ version had a $50 million authorization, and we did that. And, basically, the Bill ensures that the Lifespan Respite Care program continues to be able to expand and enhance respite services across States. It works to include coordination and dissemination of respite services, streamline access to programs, fill gaps in service where necessary and also improve the overall quality of the respite services currently available and can by authorized $10 million a year in funding through 2024.
Jim Langevin: (20:50)
So the Bill had passed the House, passed the Senate. We had to come up with a compromised version, and I spoke with Senator Collins and I told her about my history with the Bill and I asked her if she would be okay if my name were in the lead this time since we both cared passionately about the Bill. And she was gracious, incredibly gracious, and she said, “Absolutely.” That meant a lot to me personally. She didn’t have to do that, but she’s a very gracious woman. And so, as a team, we wound up passing this Bill together and I’m very much grateful and appreciative for both her leadership on this, but also working with me so closely to get it across the finish line.
Jay Ruderman: (21:37)
So, Jim, in an interview on CNN in 2018, you said that, “Disabilities have a unique power to unite us.” Why do you feel that way?
Jim Langevin: (21:46)
Yeah, because I think every family or every member of Congress is directly impacted somehow or another. Either they directly have someone in their family, whether it’s a child or a relative that is dealing with some form of disability or they certainly have close friends and maybe children of close friends that are dealing with a disability, and they understand in some way the aspect of the challenge, and challenges are involved. And so if we pass laws that help to bring down those barriers and improve people’s lives, we really have an obligation to do it. And that was what was so meaningful about the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That passed because, in a bipartisan way, members of Congress came together and said, “People with disabilities have the right to live active, independent lives in their communities. Reasonable accommodations shouldn’t be just a courtesy, but it should in fact be a civil right.” And the Americans with Disabilities Act was the civil rights law of our time.
Jim Langevin: (22:53)
But I know what a profound impact it has had in my own life. I was injured about a full 10 years before the ADA was passed. So I remember what the world was like before ADA and what it’s been like after ADA. And it’s made a profound impact in my life. And without it, as I told President Herbert Walker Bush, when I met with him, and George W. Bush, in the Oval Office for the signing of the Americans with the ADA Amendments Act, I thanked him for his leadership for passing and signing the ADA into law, because without it I probably, most likely, would not be in Congress today.
Jay Ruderman: (23:27)
So you’ve said that individuals with disabilities remain one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources, and certainly politically with 20% of our population in the United States or the world’s population, you would think that the disability community would be one of the greatest political forces, but it’s not quite there yet. Do you have any feelings on that?
Jim Langevin: (23:53)
Yeah. And the tens of millions of people with disabilities that are out there that can be registered voters are registered voters, I think could and should have a much bigger impact on the political process than we’re we’re having right now. So we’ve got to continue to advocate for people with disabilities, to get registered to vote, become and be politically active, run for office, be involved in campaigns. But you think of all the talent that the world is denied when there are barriers that exist that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in society or fully participating in the job market.
Jim Langevin: (24:35)
Perhaps if there’s one, maybe silver lining, that’s come out of this terrible COVID virus situation we’ve been combating, is that we’ve had to change the way we work and tele-work now becomes the new norm. And I hope many of the things that companies have experienced where they’ve had to adapt because of the current circumstances we’re in, that many of those lessons will be retained and those practices will be retained. And maybe that’s going to be a catalyst to allow more doors of opportunity to be open to people with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: (25:13)
So, Jim, in the past, some of our leaders have gone to great lengths to hide their physical disabilities. I’m thinking of a President Franklin Roosevelt who did not allow himself to be photographed in a wheelchair or with braces on his legs. But I think that the situation has changed today for people such as yourself. And I’m thinking of other members of Congress, some of whom are on the other side of the aisle, who you probably don’t agree with at all, but I’m seeing more people with disabilities being elected to Congress. Why do you think that change came about, even though it took such a long time for it to happen?
Jim Langevin: (26:01)
Yeah. I think eventually when barriers are brought down and opportunities are presented to people and they want to take advantage of all that life has to offer, people are going to put themselves out there as candidates. I know that’s happened on different levels, and we need to see more people with disabilities putting themselves out there as candidates, working on campaigns as well, because I want Congress to look like society just as we want diversity. I think we’re stronger when we have diversity as part of the equation, whether it’s in the workforce or in politics and in government, in the halls of Congress. And so we’re seeing more and more diversity and more women are running for office, more people of color are running for office. I want to also see more people with disabilities running for office so that Congress looks like the society we live in.
Jay Ruderman: (26:54)
So you’re in a new Congress right now in the House with 435 members. Are you meeting some of these new members of Congress with disabilities or have you not yet had the chance?
Jim Langevin: (27:06)
No, I have. And we have several different colleagues who have run for office. I’m thinking of one of my colleagues from Florida who served in combat as a double amputee. There’s also a new member of Congress who is a paraplegic and I just met him the other day. And so there are more people that are running but, again, it’s only a start and I’d like to see more.
Jay Ruderman: (27:38)
So is it safe to say that you’re able to find some common ground, at least on a personal level, even though politically you probably disagree with almost everything that they stand for?
Jim Langevin: (27:50)
Absolutely. I pride myself, as I said, of being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress. I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way, that even if you maybe have philosophical differences about the size of government or whether or not government should be active or passive, there’s always a way to find common ground on something. As I’ve talked about, some of my colleagues I’ve done that with on cyber security or career elective education or disabilities issues. We can always find common ground. We just have to have that primary focus of wanting to compromise, wanting to find that common ground. And we can do it.
Jay Ruderman: (28:23)
I’d like to end with a quote, which I think was pretty profound, but maybe you can just talk about it a little bit, that you said as a young adult trying to find his way in life that “Each lost opportunity was a reminder that I’m not like everyone else.” And tell us what that means for you? But I think that that quote, many young people can adopt that quote and really gain strength from it.
Jim Langevin: (28:54)
You know there are things clearly that I’m not going to be able to do. And I realize that there’s an aspect of that I can’t control, and certainly that can be a somewhat of a source of frustration, but also every lost opportunity, if I don’t go through those doors and at least try, I realize that, “Shame on me for at least not trying to make a difference.”
Jim Langevin: (29:20)
And so, although I’m mindful of things I can’t do, the limitations I have, I also don’t want to pass up incredible opportunities to make a difference. And I have the ability to make a difference for others and I don’t want to let those opportunities go by. And so I try to maximize it wherever possible on behalf of the people I represent or people around the country that find themselves in the same circumstances that I’m in. And I want to make sure that they have the opportunities to see it in every way possible.
Jay Ruderman: (29:53)
Jim, I really want to thank you for your service. You’ve been such an impactful member of Congress, and I think will continue to be an impactful member of Congress. And we haven’t even talked about your role in cybersecurity and so many other security issues for the United States. But I know that, regarding disabilities, that your work has really led to a change for life in the lives of people with disabilities. As you know, our foundation is approaching our advocacy from a completely different industry and working with the entertainment industry to show disability more authentically portrayed. And I think that will have ramifications in how the stigma towards people with disabilities … So I’m happy that … We work on different fronts but all for the same purpose.
Jim Langevin: (30:45)
Well, I really thank you and the Ruderman Family Foundation for the work you are doing to change the world for the better for people with disabilities. And in your way, and your organization, is bringing down barriers and opening up those doors that encourage inclusion. And I want all people to have the benefits of fully participating in their community and realizing their full potential and going after their dreams and achieving those goals in the same way that I have.
Jay Ruderman: (31:16)
Well, Jim, listen, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. You’re a good friend and, more than that, I’m honored to know you and to know someone who’s making such a difference in the world, in the lives of so many Americans.
Jim Langevin: (31:32)
Thank you, Jay.
All inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple podcast, Google Play Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
Have an idea for a podcast? Be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.
In 1980, a tragic gun accident forever changed Jim Langevin’s life, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Forty years later, as the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jim uses the uniting power of disability to bridge over the deep divides between Democrats & Republicans in Congress.