Knowing Where to Advocate

Person holding sign that says "design matters, build safer streets."

Say you need to navigate an unsafe intersection regularly that would be vastly improved with an accessible pedestrian signal. How would you go about advocating for the upgrade? Who could you contact?

While you might think that reaching out to your legislator is the best first step, that is often not the most efficient way to go about advocating for most issues. The answer of who to contact first depends on a variety of factors. Here, we aim to give you a better idea of the best advocacy path using pedestrian safety as the example.

Getting Started
In its mini course on state and local governments, the American Federation of the Blind encourages starting advocacy on the local level. Local officials are easier to reach and they control many aspects of life in your locality that you may be advocating to change.

To get safety features installed on a specific street – accessible pedestrian signal (APS), curb-cuts or sidewalks – first find out who owns the road. Get in touch with your municipal traffic or street office to get this information and find out whether there’s a public safety committee that handles such matters. This groundwork will inform how and to whom you will make your request and the process to get the request approved.

If the road is private, contact the person who owns it. If it is owned by a city, town, village, or county, contact the mayor or county supervisor. They will most likely direct you to the traffic engineering department or a planning commission so a pedestrian safety feature can be added to plans for new construction projects.

While Wisconsin Department of Transportation is involved in requests for state highways, which often run through towns, villages and cities, the process for requesting an APS often begins at the local level. In Madison, for example, there is a form you can fill out  that goes directly to the City of Madison Traffic Engineering. In Milwaukee, requests go through the Department of Public Works. Requests for a new or modified signal in Green Bay go through the Department of Public Works Traffic Division, and in Eau Claire, written requests are handled by Transportation and Traffic Engineering.

Know Your Rights
It helps to know about your rights. While it is reasonable to expect that everyone has the right to safely walk the streets where they live, there are legal considerations that determine what is required to meet that goal.

You can learn a great deal from others who have already done the legwork. The Council can help connect you with individuals and groups who know about rights for people who are blind and visually impaired as well as connect you with organizations who can give you tips on navigating the process.

Strength in Numbers
Consider gathering or joining a group of people who would benefit from safer streets. Join a talk by or volunteer for the National Complete Streets Commission. You could also join or start a Vision Zero group in your community, which works to eliminate pedestrian traffic deaths by bringing together municipal partners. Reach out to your local elected officials like your alderperson to learn what efforts on the complete streets and vision zero are already underway. Madison, for example, has a Vision Zero task force and a sub-committee working on a Complete Streets proposal.

Plan to use traditional media or social media channels to champion your cause and get the issue some buzz in your community. Telling your story, writing a letter to the editor or spreading word on social media will elevate your issue. Ask yourself what specific actions you will take and will request others joining you to take as you develop your campaign. Break down the outcome you desire into steps that become actions. Ask people to share their story on social media, for instance.

Keep in mind that accomplishing something of great value like making your community safer for everyone can take time and effort.

At the State Level
When is it best to reach out to representatives in state government? Elected officials draft legislation that become laws. To do so, they have a multi-step process which includes holding hearings whereby individuals can give written or oral testimony. Organizations like the Council also collect data from individuals using surveys to find out what issues people care most about or to discover potential solutions. Legislators then get input from advisory groups that include the insights of diverse constituency groups. This can be a great option for a non-APS-related request, such as wanting to improve pedestrian and public safety. You can make an impact at the state or federal level at any step in this process.

Advocacy is something the Council does on a regular basis. It has been a cornerstone of our work since our founding in 1952. We set our advocacy agenda around initiatives and programs that aid people who are blind and visually impaired. The Council holds an advocacy day each spring, where we invite people in communities across the state to tell their story in support of our legislative priorities: Civil Rights, Education, Employment, Healthcare and Transportation. To follow the example above, at the state level we advocate that $200,000 is earmarked for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to help municipalities install accessible pedestrian signals. Read all of our detailed asks on our website at WCBlind.org/Advocacy.

With this information, we hope that it is clearer how you can advocate for the change you want to see in your community.

Resources:
Advocating for Accessible Pedestrian Signals
Advocating for Walkable Communities
How an Opportunity Becomes A Law
Guide for Effectively Communicating with a Legislator
American Foundation for the Blind: A Mini Course on State and Local Governments

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