Advocating for an Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS) is among the ways you can make a difference in your local community.
A safe, walkable community. A well-placed bus stop for access to transportation. An equal opportunity to cast your ballot.
Each of these issues has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts by people who are visually impaired or blind throughout Wisconsin.
Yet, when many people hear the word “advocacy,” they think it means talking to or writing legislators at the state level. And though state lawmakers are an important part of the picture, the greatest opportunities often happen at the local level. It’s where you can collaborate to influence positive and productive change right where you live.
“I try to listen, listen and listen to friends, family and co-workers for their needs, wants and experiences to improve their lives here,” Dan Sippl of Eau Claire says. “This helps you start to increase your knowledge of area issues of interest as you work on opportunities to meet your local elected officials.”
Sippl has been an advocate in his community for years, and now serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired. He admits, it was a little scary when he first started meeting his local lawmakers more than 40 years ago. But the excitement of knowing he might be able to make a difference for himself and others who have low vision chased away his fears.
“Being able to help my neighbors better their lives drives me,” Sippl says. “Eventually, I’ve developed more of a focus on improving lives for our blind and visually impaired community members.”
Dan Sippl of Eau Claire speaking at a public meeting.
Take These Simple Steps to Get Started
Local advocates are people who are concerned about the health and welfare of their community. But these residents aren’t only concerned, they are active in finding solutions.
So, how do you start advocating at the local level? Consider following these steps:
- Identify an issue you or your neighbors are passionate about and learn the basics behind the problem.
- Determine the desired outcome.
- Connect with your local elected officials (town or county supervisors, city alders or council members, etc.) to introduce yourself and get to know them.
- Learn about the right opportunities to offer input about your chosen issue.
“Call or e-mail to introduce yourself and list the issues you care about so your local officials have some context when you contact them again,” Rhonda Staats suggests. “And pay attention to news reports concerning current issues or trends in city policy.”
The La Crosse woman has been involved in local issues since the 1990s. Staats is currently on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired. She has some additional ideas to help you get involved where you live.
“I am a great believer in joining affinity groups. Many communities have historical societies, craft groups, sports groups, writers’ groups, library-based literacy or book discussion groups, choral or musical groups,” Staats says. “If these groups meet in person, there are significant opportunities to start making connections.”
The Council’s Executive Director Denise Jess agrees, and believes the more you get involved, the more you’ll get to be known and trusted, and your ideas valued. You may even be asked to serve on a committee or commission.
“It is very important for those of us with vision loss to get involved in our communities,” Jess says. “Our voice matters. In my work on various commissions, committees and task forces in the city of Madison, I know I’m helping to shape a community that is more welcoming, accessible and inclusive for all of us.”
Tips for Speaking Out on Your Issue
Many city and county governments continue to hold meetings virtually on Zoom. This format offers a great opportunity to be involved in what is happening in your community and may give you the option to speak out about an issue important to you.
The public comment period is typically at the beginning of a meeting. Some people may use this time to talk about an agenda item, but you can speak on a topic that is not on the agenda. You may be timed as you talk, with the comment period for each speaker being the same, commonly ranging from two to five minutes.
Here are some tips to help you keep your comments compelling, but brief:
- Engage with the people you are addressing. A fact or short statement will get attention.
- State the main points of the issue and back up those points with personal experiences or a personal story.
- Share information about a solution.
- Make your call to action. What do you want them to do? Try to create a specific call to action so you can follow up on any possible movement.
Working with your local officials will get more done than working alone. Do not assume someone else will advocate on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired. It is up to you to organize and start your effort.
“Most importantly, if you have a disability, get out in society with a positive attitude,” Sippl says. “Allow others to focus on your ability. We all want and deserve dignity and respect. But too many in the blind and visually impaired community don’t speak out and devalue the great impact they could have on improving themselves, their families and their communities.”
Additional Resources for Local Advocacy:
- How three people advocated for accessible pedestrian signals in their communities. Learn about their approach to talking with and getting buy-in from their local officials.
- Guidelines to have an effective conversation with your lawmakers at all levels.
- Answers to questions on local open meeting laws from The League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
- Information on parliamentary procedure, including answers to questions about local meeting discussions and decision-making from The UW Division of Extension Local Government Education Center.