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A lawmaker with a brain disease used voice assist to back her bill on the House floor

Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton used text-to-speech technology to advocate for her bill on the House floor Monday, following her diagnosis with the rare brain condition known as progressive supranuclear palsy.
C-SPAN/Screenshot by NPR
Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton used text-to-speech technology to advocate for her bill on the House floor Monday, following her diagnosis with the rare brain condition known as progressive supranuclear palsy.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton is being hailed as an inspiration after advocating for her bill on the House floor this week, even as she battles a rare brain disorder that has limited her ability to speak.

The Virginia Democrat took the podium on Monday to make the case for her bill, which would rename a post office in her county after regular customer — and late Secretary of State — Madeleine Albright.

Wexton delivered her nearly two-minute remarks using a text-to-speech application, technology she's increasingly relied on since she was diagnosed last year with a degenerative brain condition known as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).

"PSP makes it very difficult for me to speak, and I use an assistive app so that you and our colleagues can understand me," Wexton told the House speaker by way of opening remarks.

PSP is a rare brain disease that affects walking, balance, eye movements and swallowing, for which there is no cure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Wexton, 55, announced her diagnosis in September, several months after being misdiagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Acknowledging that "there is no 'getting better' with PSP," she said she would not seek reelection in 2024 — but pledged to keep serving the people of northern Virginia's 10th Congressional District until then.

"While my time in Congress will soon come to a close, I'm just as confident and committed as ever to keep up the work that got me into this fight in the first place for my remaining time in office – to help build the future we want for our children," said Wexton.

Wexton is in her third term after first flipping her seat blue in 2018. A dozen Democrats and four Republicans are vying to replace her, with primary voting set to close in mid-June.

Wexton has remained involved as promised. In the days leading up to her speech, she traveled to Baltimore to discuss restoration of the Francis Scott Key Bridge with other Appropriations Committee leaders and used voice assistive technology to question Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Adrianne Todman at separate hearings, disclosing her PSP diagnosis in both.

"I describe it as Parkinson's on steroids and I don't recommend it," she said.

On Monday, Wexton spoke in favor of a bill she first introduced last spring, seeking to rename the post office in Purcellville — about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. — after her former constituent.

Albright, who died in 2022 at age 84, "chose not to have her mail delivered to her rural western Loudoun County farm but instead became a fixture at the post office that will bear her name," Wexton said.

"Secretary Albright was a fearless trailblazer for women and a devoted public servant who touched the lives of so many whom she taught, mentored and worked with, including me," she added. "It is my honor to lead this legislation to celebrate her historic life and legacy here in Virginia's 10th Congressional district, where her farm is located and where she spent as much time as she was able."

Wexton noted that this would be the latest in a long list of accolades for the former secretary — including a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom — and called it an honor to help preserve her legacy in Virginia.

"Secretary Albright once said the greatest honor of her life was representing the United States of America, a sentiment I am sure we all share as members of the House of Representatives," Wexton said.

The House passed the bill the next day, by a vote of 371 to 28. The Albright family called it a "wonderful tribute to her memory" in a statement shared by Wexton's office.

Wexton has successfully introduced several bills to rename post offices in her district during her time in the House, after WWII veteran Norman Duncan and country music icon (and Winchester native) Patsy Cline.

She is not the first lawmaker to use assistive technology in Congress — Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn., uses captioning technology due to auditory processing issues following his 2022 stroke. But it remains a rare sight, and has garnered attention and considerable praise in recent days.

As video of Wexton's remarks racked up thousands of views and hundreds of likes on X, formerly Twitter, other politicians and onlookers shared statements of support for the congresswoman.

"Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton gets more inspiring each day," wrote Virginia State Delegate Rip Sullivan. "With remarkable courage and grace, she continues to dedicate herself to the 10th district. Her constituents are lucky to have her fighting for them."

Virginia State Delegate Kathy Tran wrote that "for individuals who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) Jennifer Wexton is showing them that they too can lead and serve at the highest levels."

Even Vice President Kamala Harris weighed in, calling Wexton "an inspiration to me and to millions of Americans across our nation."

"You are showing the world what true courage and determination look like," she wrote late Tuesday. "Keep fighting."

Wexton replied with a message of thanks, adding: "And I still have things to do!" — muscle emoji included.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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