The Power of Local Advocacy in Making Our Streets Safer

An accessible pedestrian signal

Advocating for pedestrian safety with local officials can sometimes be as intimidating as navigating a dangerous intersection. Just ask Kathi Zoern. “It’s scary,” says the Wausau resident. “But it’s important to advocate. If you don’t do something, nothing’s going to change.”

Some years back, Kathi, who has been visually impaired since birth, began to attend public meetings. She soon found herself working side-by-side with Marathon County Health Department specialists, guiding them to dangerous intersections that needed attention. “The city (of Wausau) contacted me about where they should put audible walk lights and I gave them suggestions,” she says.

After identifying the trouble spots, Kathi joined a team that conducted two walk audits. One in the Town of Rib Mountain led to the installation of an audible walk light. A walk audit Kathi joined in Wausau led to the construction of accessible sidewalks that previously did not exist, walkways that led to a grocery store and a middle school.

These are real results fueled by the advocacy of real people. It’s the kind of advocacy that Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist Brent Perzentka of the Council says is most effective. “Every local municipality is going to have a streets department,” Brent says. “So much of it is educating the public. Get to know your local people, because if you speak up there might be ten other people you’re helping.”

Kathi agrees. “Working for the safety of pedestrians with disabilities is working for the safety of the whole community,” she says. “People pushing a stroller. People who need a sidewalk ramp. People on bicycles. Older people.” Brent and Kathi say in almost all cases, local officials are receptive to suggestions and guidance, and they’re thankful for the input.

It’s hard to exaggerate the power and influence a citizen advocate wields. Brent notes that local officials often value resident advice and insight even more than input from professional specialists like himself. In other words, when it comes to problems that affect you, the expert is you.

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