AUSTIN – At the state Capitol, where the biggest issues are debated and laws are made that impact all of us, the Trouble Shooters investigate why thousands of Texans aren’t even able to go inside the front door.
"This building represents everything that we do,” says Chase Bearden from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.
He comes to the Capitol in his wheelchair to advocate for millions of Texans with disabilities.
"First step's just getting in the building,” Bearden says.
He can’t access the front door of the Texas Capitol, the picturesque front steps. Instead, he has to go around the back, to the building’s only wheelchair accessible entrance.
Once he’s inside, he worries for the safety of people in wheelchairs.
"If there was a shooting incident here, there is no other exit,” Bearden says. “And what do you do if you have 40 or 50 people in chairs on the first floor and that's the area that it's happening? There's no real place to go."
The Trouble Shooters took his concerns to the State Preservation Board, the group charged with maintaining the Capitol.
"We want accessibility to not be a consideration they have to worry about,” says the board’s special projects manager Chris Currens.
He says there are obstacles to making the main entrance wheelchair accessible – chief among them, money. But beyond that, he points to the steeper terrain.
"On the south side, one would have to create a landing inside the archway which is inside the building's footprint, which would require significant structural reinforcement,” Currens says.
Governor Greg Abbott, who uses a wheelchair himself, took his first oath of office just outside the south entrance. He turned down our request for an interview.
But his feelings on the topic are revealed in emails obtained by The Texas Tribune. Back in 2015, Governor Abbott proposed adding a wheelchair ramp on the south side. A staff member replied the move would appear to the public as “self-serving.” The Governor shot back, “I already have a way in.” He added, “This would be a gesture worth a thousand pieces of legislation.”
"When I read those emails I kind of was worried that it was being looked as more of a politicized, 'let's just make them happy' kind of thing,” Bearden says. “I think if he would have done it, it would have been a lot better for a lot of people."
Other wheelchair-friendly moves have been made, including more wayfinding signs and more family-style bathrooms. Soon, there will be a shelter where people can be picked up and dropped off as close as possible to the accessible entrance.
"We hope to have that done in a year,” Currens says. “We'd love to have had it done already. It's just it takes funding and it takes coordination with several state agencies."
Something the Trouble Shooters experienced while waiting for an elevator with Bearden showed more awareness is still needed.
"So they at least put the signs on to try to get some priority for people,” Bearden said while pointing out priority access signs at elevator banks.
Seconds later, a tour group appeared and a Capitol tour guide asked the group could jump ahead.
"Could we use the elevator here?" she asked.
Bearden fears incidents like this keep people in wheelchairs home during big hearings.
"If we don't have people there representing us, then others are making those decisions for us,” he says.
By EMILY BAUCUM