Yes, that man you may have seen in the wheelchair in the Dirksen Senate Office Building was George M. White, the architect of the Capitol. No, there was nothing physically wrong with him. He was there to check out how well the facilities of the remodeled cafeteria serve handicapped patrons.
White was there at the invitation of Sue Ellen Walbridge, a wheelchair user who, not incidentally, is on the staff of the Senate subcommittee on the handicapped. Her invitation was contingent, she said, on White's using a wheelchair, the better to see how her minority lives.
The subcommittee's ranking Republican, Sen. Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, is among those who hold the purse strings for Capitol Architect White, who has administrative control of the Hill's eateries. But White, in a telephone interview, said those considerations were aside when he accepted Walbridge's invitation. First, a bit of background:
Since it was opened in 1958, the Dirksen Building had two separate but equal basement cafeterias -- the kind where you stand in line -- and both were restricted to Senate employes during peak feeding times. Recently the north cafeteria, the one visited by Walbridge and White, was renovated and expanded, with serving shifted from the traditional lines to serving islands -- one for salads, for example, another for sandwiches, and so on. (It's now called the North Servery, White observed. There's another new word for our vocabularies!)
Walbridge said the renovation was "nice . . . but it left a lot desired."
There was the matter, for example, of the stacking of utensils, some in bins too high for a wheelchair patron. Cold beverages were arranged horizontally on shelves, all the milk on one shelf and all the cola on another, with the higher ones beyond the reach of some wheelchair users; White agreed to a vertical pattern of stocking, with milk and cola stored top to bottom rather than side to side.
And White discovered one problem on his own. The only trays that were available were too short to fit across both arms of the wheelchair he was using -- "The only way I could have manipulated the wheelchair and carried the tray was to carry it in my teeth," he said -- so he decided that providing a rack of longer trays would solve the problem. That, he said, is in the works.
White said the visit gave him a new perspective. Walbridge was heartened but, she said, after 7 1/2 years on Capitol Hill, she knows change comes "real slow."
A postscript: As a result of the opening of the North Servery, White said, the Dirksen Building's South Cafeteria, once off limits to tourists during the busy lunch hour, is now available to them at all serving hours.