Missouri Capitol renovation plan mentions accessibility. Does this include reporters?

October 3, 2023 7:00 am

The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City has a plethora of stairs for visitors and staff to traverse (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

A common anecdote used by disability activists is that the Roman Colosseum is wheelchair accessible. 

Translation: Historic buildings have no excuse.

But Missouri’s Capitol has long had a myriad of stairways that create a maze for anyone utilizing a wheelchair.

I’ve seen parents struggle lifting a stroller over a small set of stairs above the legislative library. Wheelchair users must take an elevator downstairs, pass to the other side of the building and catch another elevator up to avoid the obstacle.

Renovations are planned for the state’s over 100-year-old Capitol, though on pause, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The plans include improvements in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act and more visitor parking, but little to nothing has been said if accessibility will improve for members of the press corps.

A flight of 27 stairs lead to the press corps hallway in the Missouri Capitol (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

There are nine press offices on the Capitol’s fifth floor, a dusty, narrow hallway without elevator access that requires climbing a flight of 27 stairs.. It’s nice having privacy in our own piece of the building, but I occasionally sigh as I approach the staircase.

I have an invisible disability called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. My joints are extra loose, causing some to pop out of place or rub throughout the day.

This extends all the way down to the tiny joints in my feet, removing stability from my walk and sending nerve pain up my legs if I overdo it.

Traipsing the Capitol’s marble floors week in and week out wears at one’s feet. Add in 40 pounds of camera equipment, and the last thing I want to do after work is walk the dog or go to the gym.

I bought a rolling bag for my cameras and lenses, hopeful it would lighten the burden. But with the stairs to the press quarters and staircases reminiscent of a suburban split-level home throughout, I still have to manually lug the bag periodically as I sashay from House to Senate.

Visitors to the Missouri Senate gallery using a wheelchair must use a small lift by the women’s restroom aided by Senate staff (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

An improvement planned for the renovation would increase the number of offices for lawmakers so those who are currently squished in small offices only accessible by stairs could meet constituents without this barrier. House Democrats are largely affected by the two-story, non-ADA compliant offices.

The press balcony over the House is entered through a set of heavy doors and two steps. Pushing the door while carrying a laptop bag and camera bag and stepping up or down can be a challenge. I usually let the door smack my arm as I step down the two stairs and try to swing my bulky camera bag down the steps.

I try to manage on my own, always looking for better shoes and shoving orthotics into my flats. I take the elevator as much as I can and have invested in pounds of epsom salt to relax my muscles at the end of the day.

I’ve been told I can ask for accommodations at the Capitol after I posted about my pain on social media. This is likely necessary but scares me as a journalist in a state that can be hostile to the press at times.

Visitor access to the Missouri Senate gallery is up a small set of stairs, or through a lift by the women’s restroom (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The statehouse used to be a better environment for journalists, or so I’m told. I joined the staff in December — around the time the state stopped issuing background checks and Capitol passes to the press corps.

The passes allowed reporters to use any entrance to the Capitol, bypassing the line and security check outside, and access our offices after visiting hours.

Using any door would shorten the distance I have to walk at times and make it easier to access my car midway through the day.

Reporters have 11 spots marked as “media” in front of the building. There are more than 11 reporters that cover news in the statehouse, and I often see visitors in our spots or tour buses blocking the way.

The parking accommodations for the press corps have gotten worse over the years. Assigned spots went away, the parking lot got smaller and press spaces were converted to “expected mother” spots.

The press lot often fills up by 9 a.m. during the legislative session. If you miss a spot, you have to look for one of the few 10-hour spots downtown and pay for the convenience.

I asked the governor about his take on press access during the Missouri Press Association’s lunch at the Governor’s Mansion in February.

Gov. Mike Parson said he didn’t understand my issue.

“I’m not sure why the state is obligated to provide an office, a parking lot,” he said.

It’s hard to get over the insecurity of having an invisible disability, and I know some would roll their eyes if they saw me get accommodations. But for half the year, the statehouse is my workplace.

Some offices in the Missouri Capitol are marked “not accessible” (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Some reporters use the offices year round. And politicians and voters should be glad the press has a space there.

National sentiment seemingly has swung away from respecting the press’s role, the so-called “Fourth Estate” of government as we learn in journalism school.

Without reporters in the statehouse, how would voters know who is bulldogging their priorities? And how could we learn about the thought behind new laws?

The inaccessibility of the Capitol slows down me and my colleagues in the press corps, and it is a barrier for people with physical disabilities to come and participate in their government.

My podiatrist recently recommended surgery for my feet if I can’t improve otherwise. I’d love to be fixed, but I can’t imagine doing my job in a cast in the Capitol.


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Annelise Hanshaw
Annelise Hanshaw

Annelise Hanshaw writes about education — a beat she has covered on both the West and East Coast while working for daily newspapers in Santa Barbara, California, and Greenwich, Connecticut. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.