Disability activist Nikki Villavicencio uses her head and feet to push buttons to open doors and call elevators at the Minnesota State Capitol. “I have a rare condition called arthrogryposis. It’s a condition that affects my joints and my muscles, and so I use my feet to do everything – write, type, take care of my daughter.”

We asked Nikki to be our tour guide to see how someone with a disability and in a wheelchair navigates the newly restored structure. As she approaches the elevator, we see how difficult it can be. “See how these buttons are, they’re already almost flat, you have to really push it in to get it to go. It’s worse inside here for somebody with limited mobility,” Villavicencio adds.

The State Department of Administration’s Wayne Waslaski takes the feedback in stride. “I hadn’t heard that feedback. That’s certainly something we can take a look at.”

Down in the basement, in the new-look tunnel spaces, Nikki finds that the signs are dark and difficult to read. The walk to the newly constructed Minnesota Senate Building is wide, but it’s a long walk for ambulatory folks, though railings and benches can help. The biggest issue underneath the buildings on the Capitol campus is the tunnel that runs to the State Office Building, which houses members of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Rod Hamiliton (R-Mountain Lake) uses a motorized wheelchair in the tunnel underneath the Capitol that runs to the State Office Building.

That tunnel is steep and difficult for anyone in a push chair to climb, as Rep. Rod Hamiliton (R-Mountain Lake) regularly displays. He has a bill for a $500,000 study to redo that commonly used underground pathway. “The State Office Building sits significantly lower than the Capitol, so you have a slope. We have to find a path to avoid utilities and still have right grade,” Waslaski says.

That provision died when lawmakers failed to approve a bonding bill for state construction projects in the final hours of a special session.

Joan Wilshire, from the State Council on Disability, reminds us that building codes often have broad ranges. The disability community was involved in the Capitol restoration from the beginning, and remaining appropriations are helping fund upgrades on the mall.

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We looked into the signage and accessibility of the exterior of the Capitol campus as well, you can read and and see more here.

Step inside the multi-year, $300 million dollar Minnesota State Capitol renovation in the documentary Restoring the People’s House, which strings together Mary Lahammer’s extensive coverage of the capitol’s transformation.

Who designed Minnesota’s previous state capitol building? Good question. Get up-to-speed in this episode of 30-Second Minnesota. While you’re at it, explore other bite-sized local history stories. 

Stay tuned to Almanac for the next installment of Mary Lahammer’s exploration of efforts to improve accessibility at the capitol. TPT’s long-running public affairs show airs on TPT2 on Fridays at 7 pm and on Sundays at 9:30 am.