Colorado's first lawmaker to use a wheelchair will finally get to wield the gavel

Colorado's first lawmaker to use a wheelchair will finally get to wield the gavel 1

After serving a year in the state House as Colorado’s first lawmaker to use a wheelchair, Democratic Rep. David Ortiz uses the new House chamber lift to get to the podium and slam the gavel for the very first time.

Bente Birkeland/Colorado Public Radio

Bente Birkeland/Colorado Public Radio

When Colorado elected Rep. David Ortiz, the state’s first lawmaker to use a wheelchair, staff at the 130-year-old capitol building in Denver quickly got to work making changes.

Wooden ramps were added, doorways were widened and Ortiz’s desk was modified so that he could get to work unassisted. But for his first session in office, the Democrat still couldn’t reach the most prominent place in the House chamber: the speaker’s podium.

In 2022, that changes.

“It looks amazing,” says Ortiz, checking out the newly installed lift that will give him the same access to the podium his colleagues enjoy every day. “I really think it goes with the aesthetic of the building.” The gold-colored rectangular box, which sits adjacent to the steps leading up to the platform, was designed to blend in with the capitol’s ornate decor.

Colorado's first lawmaker to use a wheelchair will finally get to wield the gavel 2

“It looks amazing,” says Ortiz looking at the new lift that he’ll take to the podium to address his fellow House members starting in the 2022 legislative session.

Bente Birkeland/Colorado Public Radio

Bente Birkeland/Colorado Public Radio

Legislative staff say that they believe this is the first podium lift of its kind installed inside a state capitol anywhere in the U.S.

“I love the misted glass, that way I don’t feel like I’m being stared at,” Ortiz says, pointing to a subtle screen that surrounds the lift. “Although I feel like someone should be playing The Final Countdown as it’s lifted up.”

With the lift in place, Ortiz will now be able to take a turn presiding over the full chamber, wielding the gavel during debates and determining the winners and losers of voice votes.

“This is pretty much where the power lies with the majority party versus the minority party,” says Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, also a Democrat.

Over the course of a session, every member of the majority party gets a chance to preside over the chamber. Garnett says he’s glad Ortiz will now join that rotation.

“You can do it with humor, you can do it with fairness. Everyone has their own style, and I’m really excited to watch Rep. Ortiz as he gets this opportunity.”

For the 2021 session, legislative staff trained to physically carry Ortiz up to the podium in his wheelchair. Ultimately, though, Ortiz says he didn’t want to take that approach.

“There were a whole host of reasons. I didn’t want to get dropped, imagine what that could have looked like?” But mostly, he says, “I wanted them to do things the right way.”

During his first test of the lift, Ortiz rolled his wheelchair onto it as the staff who oversaw the project looked on. In 15 seconds, he was out on the dais.

“Who’s ready?” he laughed as he grabbed the large wooden gavel used to manage the floor and gave it a sharp bang on the desk.

“That is loud up here.”

As Ortiz thanked staff for making the lift a reality, his manner changed from joking to emotional for a moment.

The 39-year-old survived a helicopter crash while serving with the Army in Afghanistan and was left paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, Ortiz has worked to highlight issues people living with disabilities face. For him, making Colorado’s capitol building more accessible is about a lot more than his own ability to do his job.

“It’s also symbolic to be able to see somebody with a disability up there now; whereas before we couldn’t,” he says. “Any little boy or girl that lives with a disability [and] sees that, maybe they will consider running for office. And I would encourage them to because being a caucus-of-one can get pretty lonely.”

The podium lift cost $22,000 and is likely not the last modification for the House chamber — other areas still need changes before Ortiz can go everywhere his fellow lawmakers already have access to.