Nearly a third of Wisconsin residents do not drive. It’s a fact that Council Executive Director Denise Jess shared this past spring with members of the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance during hearings on the state’s biennial budget.
Advocacy is one of the pillars of the Council’s work, along with education and vision services, and providing testimony on the state budget was just one of the Council’s key activities to advance our advocacy priorities in 2021. You can learn more about each of those priority areas on our website.
Here is an overview of our progress on advocacy efforts during the past year.
Advocating for State Budget Priorities
The Council weighed in on a number of items in Wisconsin’s 2021-23 biennial budget, with the aim of improving transportation and accessibility for nondrivers, increasing training and work-related resources, and increasing aid for special education. While we were heard, the Legislature did not act on our requests, and the Council got little of what we asked for in the budget.
“We were disappointed in the outcome of the budget process,” Denise says. “We believe this budget doesn’t fully reflect the needs of the people in the state who are blind and visually impaired. But there were some important wins that set us up well for the next budget cycle.”
Denise notes that we laid a solid foundation for future budget talks by establishing an open communication line with the Governor’s Office and educating legislators about our priorities through participation in budget hearings that captured significant media attention.
Advocating for Accessibility
Our efforts on this front focused on improving access to voting, transportation, and vision rehabilitation services.
Wisconsin Non-Driver Advisory Committee
This diverse group, co-chaired by Denise, includes representatives from state agencies, lawmakers, advocacy organizations, local government and transit operators. The committee is charged with identifying and making recommendations to remove transportation barriers for people who don’t drive. Major accomplishments include:
- Drafting a set of transportation performance metrics that reflect non-drivers’ needs. This information will be distributed to transit operators across the state to evaluate how effectively they are serving non-drivers.
- Using Census data to determine that 30 percent of Wisconsin residents are non-drivers.
- Developing a computer mapping tool that shows where in the state non-drivers live. With this tool, planners and policy makers can discover where public transit funding and services are most needed.
The Council advocated for an absentee ballot that is fully accessible for people who are visually impaired. With voting rights at the center of heated public debate this past year, we had an opportunity to inform the public and policymakers of the election barriers people with vision loss experience.
We worked with the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) to build more accessibility into state government websites. The result was a first-ever coordinated plan to help different state agencies, including the Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), become more accessible to people who are visually impaired.
This effort is a great start to gaining access to important information on voting, public health and more. We are now in discussions with the State Legislature about making its website — which is administered separately from those controlled by DOA — more accessible.
Access to Vision Services
There is a large resource gap in vision rehabilitation resources, and with the number of people living with vision loss expected to double in the next 25 years, addressing the resource shortage is critical. The Council is discussing this gap with DHS, advocating for the agency to examine needs and develop a comprehensive plan for addressing them.
Access to Vaccines
The Council worked hard with officials and providers to ensure that people who are visually impaired have equitable access to COVID vaccines, including transportation to vaccination sites.
Advocating for Pedestrian Safety
White Cane Safety Day in October was an opportunity to build awareness of the importance of pedestrian safety, both for people who are visually impaired and others who get around on foot. The Council’s White Cane Safety Day campaign was supported by 23 mayoral proclamations in communities across the state and a statewide proclamation from Governor Tony Evers.
Council staff and board spoke at proclamation award events in six of these communities and participated in a press event in La Crosse. The Council also ran bus ads ran in Green Bay, Wausau and Madison.
What You Can Do
To be successful, we rely on the participation of a network of advocates across the state. We invite you to be part of that network if you aren’t already! Please share your story in your community to illustrate what transportation options, pedestrian safety, accessible absentee voting and other issues mean to you. If you use social media, you can share our posts with your online network to help spread the word and educate people about our work. And please feel free to forward our Advocacy Update e-newsletter to anybody you think would be interested or sign-up for the monthly Advocacy Updates newsletter.