From the Council offices to clients’ homes to the State Capitol, 2023 was a productive year in all aspects of the Council’s work—advocacy, education and vision services. As the new year begins, there’s a lot to celebrate even as the work continues.
“At the close of each year, I’m touched and amazed at what the Council has accomplished to promote the dignity and empowerment of people with vision loss in Wisconsin,” says Executive Director Denise Jess.
Council events throughout the year connected people with resources, new knowledge and each other. Advocacy Days in April once again helped participants attain the tools to work with policy makers on the issues that matter to them. This year’s sessions focused on advocacy basics, health care access for people with vision loss, and transportation equity for nondrivers.
In the spring, the Council once again teamed up with Badgerland Bird Alliance (formerly Madison Audubon) for the popular Birding by Ear classes and field trips in April and May. Spring also brought two Dining in the Dark events, orchestrated in partnership with our friends at Brix Cider in Mount Horeb and Beastro & Barley in Reedsburg, which brought people together for a thought-provoking meal they experienced focusing on senses other than vision.
We were once again pleased to award scholarships to several postsecondary learners last spring. Ten students were awarded $2,000 each toward their educational costs. In November, visitors flocked to our Madison offices for our annual Gallery Night event, which showcased the work of eight Wisconsin artists with vision loss. Their creations ranged from paintings to wood carvings to fiber arts. Meanwhile, our regular program offerings such as virtual gatherings of the Trailblazers and the College and Working Age Low Vision Support Groups and access technology classes took place throughout the year, providing participants with new insights and tools for work, play and an overall vibrant life.
How do people find out about these events and activities? The Council gets the word out through its regular publications like the Council Courier newsletter—available in large print, braille and audio editions—and our On Sight e-newsletter. We also provide a wealth of information through our website and social media channels. In addition to our regularly scheduled materials, we produced new publications in 2023, including a new, updated version of our “Adapting to Low Vision” booklet and a brand new quick-start guide for white cane users, “Getting Started With Your New White Cane.” You can find all Council materials on the Publications page of our website.
Our Vision Services team was busy all year, as demand for vision rehabilitation, low vision, access technology, and orientation and mobility (O&M) services was brisk. We were pleased to begin providing O&M training to students in the Sauk Prairie School District in the fall, a new endeavor for the Council in 2023.
The Council was also extremely active on the advocacy front in 2023. Since it was a state budget year, we and our allies worked diligently to advance our shared priorities, with particular emphasis on transportation equity and access to vision rehabilitation services.
Pedestrian safety was also a focal point of the Council’s advocacy work in 2023. During Pedestrian Safety Month in October, Governor Evers and over 30 municipal leaders across Wisconsin issued proclamations recognizing White Cane Safety Day and highlighting the importance of making our communities safer and more usable for all pedestrians.
“We’re grateful to these leaders for helping spread the message that keeping pedestrians safe, especially those who are most vulnerable in traffic, is everybody’s responsibility,” Denise says.
During Pedestrian Safety Month, Denise also worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Civil Rights to present a workshop on Pedestrian Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines and Americans with Disabilities Act Requirements. The presentation was given to State of Wisconsin transportation planning leaders to increase awareness of requirements and best practices for accessibility.
Late in 2022, VisionServe Alliance published a report, “Wisconsin’s Older Population and Vision Loss: A Briefing,” as part of their nationwide Big Data Project. This report provides unprecedented insights into our older adult population living with blindness and significant vision impairment. Throughout 2023, these findings guided our efforts to educate policy makers and community partners about the needs of older adults as we plan for this rapidly growing population of Wisconsin residents.
ID equity was another focus of our advocacy efforts. As 2023 ended, “Steve’s Law” had made significant progress in the State Legislature, but was still awaiting final passage so it could be signed into law. This legislation would represent a big first step toward ID equity in Wisconsin by enabling the Department of Natural Resources to access state ID data digitally—as they already can with driver’s license information—for purposes of establishing state residency. Our ultimate aim is to expand that concept across all state agencies, making those two forms of ID functionally equivalent for all purposes other than driving.
All these advocacy initiatives are continuing into 2024.
None of this work would be possible without the generous financial support that comes from the Council’s supporters across the state and the country, and 2023 was a banner year in working with donors seeking to use their resources creatively to help the Council. “Over the past two years, the number of gifts coming from individuals who have established Donor Advised Funds and those who are taking IRA distributions has increased significantly,” says Fund Development Director Lori Werbeckes. “We’re pleased that our efforts to make donors aware of these alternative ways to give have been beneficial to the Council and to our supporters.”
But the Council equally appreciates the small, individual gifts that have always sustained us. “We are grateful for gifts of any dollar amount,” Lori adds. “We strive to make giving accessible and inclusive for anyone who wants to support the Council’s work.”
Grants were another important source of support for our programs in 2023. Funding from four foundations enabled the Council to provide adaptive products that enhance safety and assist with daily living tasks at no cost to clients who cannot afford to purchase them on their own.
And then there were gifts to the Council that came in the form of volunteering. Thanks to artful planning and planting done by members of Rock Prairie Master Gardener Association, the Council’s offices are now surrounded by sensory gardens that delighted visitors and passersby all summer and early fall with an invitation to slow down, touch, smell and see.
As the year came to a close, Denise reflected on the range of work the Council accomplished, the clients we’ve helped, our growing “footprint” of impact on our advocacy issues, the new relationships we’re building with community partners, and our success in sustaining and growing existing relationships.
“My heartfelt gratitude goes out to our talented and dedicated staff and board and to our donors and volunteers,” Denise says. “Together we can move forward to achieve the Council’s mission.”