On the eve of a massive South Lawn ceremony where President Bush will sign landmark legislation for the disabled, some Democrats and advocates for the disabled have accused the president of failing to practice inside the White House what he preaches outside.
The charges that the White House lacks facilities to make it hospitable to the disabled, coming as the administration prepares to highlight its commitment to the disabled, brought a roar of outrage from administration officials. They said the White House has adequate accommodations or, where lacking, is planning for them, and stressed that the president has "made a personal crusade" of getting legislation passed to help the disabled.
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) released a letter to Bush calling on him to make the White House "accessible to the physically disabled" and bring what Bush calls "the people's house" into compliance with the new legislation.
Levine, contending that complaints were brought to him by White House employees, said it was disappointing that Bush, "the kinder, gentler president, has not acted to implement necessary changes in the White House to make it accessible to tourists and employees in wheelchairs." In addition, he complained that no tours are conducted for the blind or deaf and that the White House has no restrooms equipped for disabled employees or tourists.
Two advocates for the deaf have called The Washington Post in recent days to complain of a lack of interpreters for deaf visitors to the White House when such assistance is available at other major tourist attractions such as the Capitol and Smithsonian Institution.
Alixe Glen, deputy White House press secretary, cited a list of improvements made at the White House to make it more accessible to the handicapped, and others that are in progress. She said that all entrances to the White House complex are accessible by wheelchair, that mobile ramps are available and that a special telephone line for the deaf is in operation.
Glen said that following a review ordered by Bush last year, restrooms are being altered to accommodate the disabled; Room 450, the major meeting room for large White House briefings, will be altered to allow wheelchair seating; and a special hydraulic lift is being installed. Facilities such as water fountains will be altered, she said.
Glen said all the regular public tours are "self-guided" -- visitors go through the public rooms of the White House at their own pace, reading written histories. The "VIP tours," she said, for which people obtain tickets from members of Congress, will provide a guide who can interpret for the deaf if the tour organizer requests such assistance.
The White House has planned an elaborate ceremony today for the signing of the legislation, which advocates describe as a sweeping civil rights measure that will affect about 43 million Americans with physical or mental impairments. The legislation extends protection against discrimination in employment, transportation, housing, recreation and public accommodations.
About 2,000 people have been invited to the ceremony, an unusually large audience for a bill-signing. Bush, who for a decade has been an advocate of extending more rights to the disabled, strongly backed the legislation that Congress passed last month.