Local Boards and Commissions Need the Disability Perspective. You Can Provide It!

A meeting of the Madison School Board with members seated around a U-shaped table

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.” The coining of that phrase is attributed to many people, but the meaning never changes: Get involved, be an active participant in public decisions, or expect to live with decisions you may not like.

Council Executive Director Denise Jess has occupied many seats at many tables over the years, local, state and national. To name just a few, she’s currently Vice Chair of Community Shares of Wisconsin’s Board of Directors; she co-chairs the Wisconsin Non-Driver Advisory Committee; and she’s a member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. She knows first-hand that disability representation on local and state boards and commissions makes a difference.

“The lived experience people with disabilities bring to topics like civil rights, school functions, transportation planning and so many other areas is vital,” Denise says. “It brings more depth to the conversation and the decisions.”

The idea of getting involved on a board or commission can be intimidating. In addition, there’s an overarching belief that people with vision loss and other disabilities have limits and are perceived as people needing something rather than having something to contribute. “So often, people don’t think to ask us,” Denise says.

That said, the need for people with disabilities to serve on commissions and boards has never been greater. And the qualifications to serve are well within everyone’s reach. The main attributes required are the willingness to learn and the willingness to serve. Representation of people with disabilities leads to a more inclusive community.

Often people simply don’t know how to get onto a commission. Denise’s advises folks to ease into the experience by, for example, attending a public board meeting to soak up the process. “You don’t necessarily have to run for city council,” Denise says. You can first watch the proceedings and learn about how decisions are made. “Get to know the process, then start speaking at these meetings.”

A lot of decisions that impact people with disabilities are made at the local level, and that’s often the most impactful place to get involved.

“Learn about local government structure,” Denise says. “If there’s a specific topic area you’re interested in, investigate related work underway.” Take transportation, for example. One can easily call a city or town transportation department and ask how to join a committee or board. Simply asking a department official “How can I get involved?” can get the ball rolling. Reaching out to an alder or current member of a town board is also a great way to start.

Long time La Crosse disability advocate Rhonda Staats has been working for social causes since her days caucusing for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign back in the early 1980’s. Rhonda, who is totally blind, currently serves on a variety of boards and commissions, including the La Crosse Disability Board. She has some advice of her own for people who are looking to get off the sidelines and into the game.

“Just do it,” Rhonda says. “Put yourself forward. If people in charge indicate they can’t use your skill, don’t be discouraged. It’s not personal. Keep trying.” Rhonda uses her own experience as an example. It took her three tries to attain a seat on the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired Board of Directors. “Boards are generally looking for people to serve. They are looking for joiners. Don’t get discouraged!”

Once on the board or commission, Rhonda says a whole world of opportunity opens up. Seeing public policy made firsthand—and having a direct role in shaping it—can be exciting. “It’s really nice to have access to all these plans,” she says. “To try to get an inkling of what they’re going to do. People’s lives are in the balance here.”

Madison Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) member (and Council board member) Melanie Ramey also has deep experience in this kind of service. In addition to her work with the EOC, Melanie is also Vice President of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and was a plaintiff on the legal challenge to Wisconsin’s Voter ID law. She says people should enter commission work with an understanding of the size of the commitment.

“If you join a committee you need to understand what’s expected of you and be willing to do it,” Melanie says. “That’s the only way these things can function. I really hope people will consider doing these things because it really does make a difference.”

Denise gives an example of what a difference being at the table can make, related to her service on the City of Madison’s Transportation Commission. A recent discussion involved street crossings and stop lights. Because of her awareness of disability issues and traffic flow, Denise was able to influence a decision about what’s called “pedestrian refuges” (islands) midway across streets at traffic lights. These are critical for pedestrians who are disabled because many cannot get all the way across the street in one stoplight cycle.

“Those light cycles are timed for people who are able bodied and quick to get across,” Denise explains. “You have two choices: Change the light cycle or put in a pedestrian refuge.” Absent someone thinking on behalf of people with disabilities, those differences may not be explored.

“I ran for the Madison School Board to be a voice for the voiceless,” says attorney Nicki Vander Meulen, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and cerebral palsy. “I know what it’s like to not have a voice in school,” she says. “I know what it’s like to have to fight for my rights, and now it’s my turn to help represent the rights of students by serving on the MMSD Board for a third term.” Nicki points to a recent experience related to her school board work that provided her great personal satisfaction. “This past year, a 15-year-old disability advocate spoke up about inaccessibility at East High School, saying I inspired her to speak out. That was definitely a great moment.”

Finally, having members of the disability community at the decision-making table generally opens people’s minds to the need for equity in all decision-making. More discussion on these issues helps normalize them. Denise calls these moments “emotional deposits.” Commissioners or board members who once didn’t give much thought to the disability perspective may start actively recruiting people with disabilities for membership. That same board member may well say to themself, “This board has improved because we have a member of the disability community here.”

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