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Council Welcomes Denise Jess, New CEO/Executive Director

 Denise Photo

Denise Jess, the Council's new CEO/Executive Director

The Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired introduced a new era on October 1, when Denise Jess began her tenure as Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director.

Denise served as Assistant Executive Director since July 1 and assumed the leadership role after Executive Director Loretta Himmelsbach retired on September 29.

A Madison resident, Denise previously served as Second Vice President for the Council Board of Directors. She chaired the Nominating Committee and was a member of the Scholarship Committee. Board Chair Chris Richmond invited her to get involved with the Council a few years ago, and she jumped at the opportunity.

“Chris attended a workshop I was teaching at the UW-Madison and was really impressed with my level of comfort in telling people that I had a visual impairment,” Jess said. “When he asked if I was interested in getting involved with the Board, it felt exactly right. Throughout my career, I’ve had the great benefit of people opening doors of opportunity to me, recognizing my capabilities and commitment. So, I welcomed the chance to ’pay it forward’ and put my energy into serving the blind and visually impaired communities.”

Denise brings to the Council an extensive background in elementary and adult education and small business ownership, starting her career more than 30 years ago as an elementary school teacher.

“I loved teaching kids, and I especially appreciated their natural curiosity, powerful questions and acceptance of differences.  It was an honor to help nurture these qualities and help the children reach their fullest potential.”

In 1995, Denise launched her own business, Denise Jess Consulting, to help organizations foster an atmosphere of uncompromising respect, dignity and genuine acceptance.  In addition, she served as an ad hoc instructor for the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, co-facilitating popular workshops like “Facilitating by Heart,” “Listening for a Change: Skills for Dialogue” and “The Art of Conflict Transformation.”

Denise will contribute a great deal of leadership and organizational development, facilitation and communication skills to the Council.  She attracted a broad client base, from environmental, social justice and human service organizations, to government agencies and religious/spiritual communities, along with healthcare and mental health professionals and corporations.

She is excited to bring to the Council her commitment to building relationships, working collaboratively and finding mutually-beneficial and innovative solutions to complex issues.  “Looking ahead, I hope to build upon the Council’s rich history and strong foundation of inspired service to our mission as we even more clearly define our value for inclusivity and how this guides every aspect of what we do.”

“I’m thrilled to have been selected as CEO/Executive Director – it’s amazing to me,” Denise reflected. “I am so fortunate to work with an exceptional staff and board who have energy and commitment and who care deeply about the organization and each other. That’s very important to me because it ripples out to doing healthy, meaningful and life-changing work in our wider Wisconsin community.”

Get Ready to Cast Your Ballot at the Polls on November 8


A Photo ID is required to vote in November elections.

Are you ready to make your vote count? This year’s general election is on Tuesday, November 8.

Having proper identification on Election Day is very important because a photo ID is required to vote in Wisconsin. Many seniors may not realize that their driver’s licenses or ID cards have lapsed.

Jean Kalscheur, Education and Vision Services Director for the Council, advises that “It’s important for family members to check Mom and Dad’s driver’s license to see if it has expired.”

Council CEO/Executive Director Denise Jess encourages residents in small towns and rural areas who have limited access to Department of Motor Vehicle offices to obtain a new photo ID before the election.

“It is also vital that people know their rights as voters with disabilities,” Jess remarked. “With some of our population and their families who are new to visual impairment or others who may feel disenfranchised by the process, it’s important that they know the law is behind them and they have the right to ask for and be granted accommodations.”

The Americans with Disabilities Provision on Voting, as well as the Help America Vote Act, outline accessible voting rights in Wisconsin.

Another crucial step is for voters to know the candidates and where they stand on issues. The League of Women Voters provides essential information on the candidates at

If you cannot make it to the polls, there is still time to vote absentee. To apply for an absentee ballot by mail, contact your municipal clerk or apply online at If you plan to mail a request, the clerk must receive it no later than 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 3.

Your vote is your voice. Make it heard on Election Day!

DeBlaey Leaves Council with Fond Memories

Virginia DeBlaey with Ann Manley sept2016

Virginia DeBlaey (right) shows iPhone student Ann Manley the gestures used with voiceover to explore the Home screen. 

After touching the lives of hundreds of people who are blind or visually impaired, Virginia DeBlaey decided it’s time to enjoy retirement.

Virginia, who has served as a Council Vision Rehabilitation Teacher since October 2006, retired on September 28. She worked in a part-time capacity, teaching rehabilitation skills to clients in their homes on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Before joining the Council, Virginia worked as a vision rehabilitation teacher for the state for 25 years, and she taught kitchen skills to people with vision and hearing loss at the Center for Deaf-Blind Persons in Milwaukee.

Virginia was born prematurely and given too much oxygen in an incubator, which resulted in her blindness. The condition known as Retinopathy of Prematurity was quite common in the 1940s and 50s.

“It still exists, but because babies are saved so much earlier now, they often have other handicaps besides vision loss that make their lives more challenging,” Virginia said.

Providing rehabilitation services for clients who are often experiencing vision loss for the first time has been a rewarding and inspiring experience for Virginia.

“I’ve met many wonderful people over the years--people whose lives are in crisis because they are losing their vision,” Virginia recalls. “Most of them are older so they’re facing other challenges as well. I have learned that if you’re a person who has mastered other life crises well, you’ll adjust to vision loss, too. If you have not, losing your vision will be very challenging.”

Virginia also served as a Council board member for many years before she joined the staff as a vision rehabilitation teacher in 2006. Her late husband Adrian served many years as a Council board member and was board president for several years.  In addition, Adrian was Executive Director of the Badger Association of the Blind, now known as Vision Forward Association.

“The Council has been a great organization to work for, and the staff has always made it a really good workplace,” she said.

October 15 Honors Significance of White Cane

Man with Cane

Gary Doering of Baraboo credits his white cane with increasing his

independence and mobility 

For millions of Americans who are blind or visually impaired, the white cane provides freedom, independence and security.

Each year on October 15, White Cane Safety Day honors the significance of the white cane for people with a visual impairment. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the White Cane Law into effect, and he designated this date for annual recognition.

For many Wisconsinites who are visually impaired, the white cane has become a valuable and often crucial tool in their daily lives. Constance Miller, a long-time Antigo resident, has used a white cane since 1990. She lost vision in her right eye shortly after her birth.

“I wish I had been more faithful about using a white cane earlier in my life,” Miller remarked.

With specialized training and support, Constance became a confident white cane user. While she still relies on some of her residual vision, she can’t picture life without a white cane.

“The white cane provides a level of independence and security,” Miller explained. “With my white cane, I don’t have to rely on a sighted guide. My motto is ‘have cane, will travel.’”

Saving Sight Symposium to Offer Latest on Macular Degeneration

Saving Sight

There's still time to register for this free and informative program. 

Don’t miss an opportunity to hear experts discuss the most up-to-date medical treatments and advances in Macular Degeneration. Make plans to attend Saving Sight: Macular Degeneration Symposium on Thursday, October 27, at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. The symposium begins at 8 a.m. and concludes at 1:30 p.m.

This free event will feature vendor exhibits that demonstrate new magnification technology, computer aids and other helpful products. The UW School of Nursing will also provide free health screenings. Speakers from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health – Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and UW Health Ophthalmologists will discuss the latest research and important issues and share resources and solutions for individuals experiencing vision loss from Macular Degeneration.

For planning purposes, advance registration is required. To attend, go to or call the Council office at 1-800-783-5213. Registration deadline is Friday, October 21, or when seating capacity of 1,000 is reached.

Please tell others about this free and informative event.

Come Play Cards with Us at Eleventh Annual Euchre Tournament

Playing Cards

Join us for this year's Euchre tournament! 

Get ready to show off your hot hand at the Annual Euchre Tournament on Saturday, October 29.

Culver’s restaurant, at 571 E. Richardson Springs Road in Edgerton, will again be the location for this year’s tournament. Registration starts at 10 a.m., with play beginning at 10:30. Players can enjoy a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. Winners will be announced at 2 p.m.  The top three players will receive cash prizes.

The $10 registration fee includes lunch. Proceeds from the tournament benefit the Council’s programs and services and fund the cash prizes.  

Space is limited to 76 players. Join the fun and call Sally Zenchenko today at 608-334-1818 to save your seat.

Council Staff Share Favorite Sharper Vision Store Products at November Webinar

Are you curious about what Sharper Vision Store products our staff use on a regular basis?

Find out when you attend our next webinar, Adaptive Products for Individuals with Vision Loss: Staff Favorites, on Wednesday, November 2, from 11 a.m. to Noon. Council staff will show and share why they use certain products, how they work, and the ways these items have enhanced and improved their daily lives.

You’ll also learn about the Sharper Vision Store and its many useful products. You might even get ideas for holiday gift giving!

To register for this free webinar, go to  

All are welcome to attend.

Bidding Against Blindness: Online Auction Set for November

It’s that time of year again! You can support the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired by bidding on items during our online auction from November 10 to 16.

There’s no event to attend, no transportation to arrange, no babysitter to pay – just spend a few minutes in the comfort of your home, browsing a variety of items at

Want a sneak peek at the auction items?  They will be available to view beginning on November 1.

Here are a few of the nearly 100 items that have been generously donated for this year’s auction:

- Festival Foods and Target gift cards

- Papa Murphy’s pizzas

- A variety of cookbooks

- Milwaukee Admirals tickets

- lots of local restaurant gift cards, delicious and unique foods, wine tastings and tours, concert and theater tickets, and much more!

Bidding begins November 10 and ends November 16. Don’t miss this opportunity to win great products and experiences while you support the Council’s work at the same time.

Our thanks to the businesses and individuals who donated auction items. If you know someone who might be interested in contributing an item, please contact Fund Development Director Lori Werbeckes at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Your generosity makes this auction a fun and fund-filled event!

Vignette Dining Helps Make Dining in the Dark an Eye-Opening Experience


Dining in the Dark guests receive background on eating without the sense of vision.

A rural setting, welcoming hosts and delicious food helped create an amazing Dining in the Dark experience for Madison-area guests on September 17 and 18!

Our thanks to Vignette Dining for embracing the opportunity to provide a meal that guests would enjoy without vision. The textures and aromas of the different foods came alive to the blindfolded diners as they ate without their sense of sight. 

We hope to partner with Vignette Dining for more of these unique and educational experiences. If you would like to join us, watch for information from the Council or follow Vignette Dining at

Finding the Right Support for Me – by Mike Morris

A blog post currently featured on “The Outlook From Here”

Mike Morris

Mike Morris negotiates the journey of living with vision loss.

I, Mike Morris, am losing my vision. That’s how I finished my previous post. If you read that post, you’ll understand that the statement was said in fear. It was the moment when I admitted to myself and others around me that I was losing my vision. I had already accepted that I was a member of the club. Today was the day I realized what it meant to be a member of the club.

As I entered my forties, my life was changing, and not how I thought it would change. I thought I spent my twenties and thirties positioning myself to capture my dreams. It turns out that I was spending my early years preparing for an unplanned chapter. It was time to make some lemonade.

The past couple weeks reminded me of a valuable lesson I learned years ago. If we keep our minds open, we can learn something from everyone who enters our life. I recently discovered the value of low vision therapists. I recalled people in my life I knew who were visually impaired and successful in their own right. I am not the first person to go from 20/20 vision to life as a person who is visually impaired. It was time to learn from those who are walking the life I wanted to lead.

It didn't take long to locate support groups for every sort of vision impairment or blindness. Some were held online, others in person at local, public meeting places. I found an online support group for my exact diagnosis. I joined the online community, then quickly left it.

What had I just signed up for? When I thought of joining a support group, I expected to find a group that was supportive. The support group I found was not supportive, unless you consider hearing horror stories and complaints of being a person with a vision impairment supportive.

I didn't join a support group to hear what’s wrong in life. I was looking for a group that provided the definition of a support group, “a group where members provide each other with various types of help, usually nonprofessional and nonmaterial, for a particular shared, usually burdensome, characteristic. Members with the same issues can come together for sharing coping strategies, to feel more empowered, and for a sense of community.”

The second and third groups I found turned out to be much the same as the first. I left the second group as quickly as the first. With the third group, I took a different approach. I didn't leave. When I saw opportunities to speak positively about our condition, I did. My positivity wasn't accepted. I was asked to leave the group.

For me, the fourth time was the charm. This group included people who had various visual challenges. As a group, humility ruled. Laughter of the group’s quirkiness was present. When someone had a problem to work through, advice was freely given. Frustration was shared. The best part was that all members of the group came together for the same purpose--to help each other be better. Finally, I found a group that offered what I was hoping for.

What did I take away from this group? Life was going to get worse, then better. I remember being told the time would come when I wouldn’t be able to distinguish the men’s restroom from the women’s (it did, in a dimly-lit supper club). The group taught me about Charles Bonnet Syndrome (glad that I learned about this before I started seeing things).

The greatest lesson the group taught me was one that I already knew, but for which I needed a reminder. Life could be worse, and while I couldn’t control what was happening to my vision, I could control how I reacted to what was happening. I still possessed the ability to do what I wanted, albeit occasionally modified from the norm. This lesson was about to have a significant impact on my life.

Disability Employment Awareness Month: Spreading the Importance of Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace

Disability HO Ariticle

We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to do meaningful work.

As we take this month to recognize employment diversity, we would also like to emphasize the importance of inclusivity in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor has created the theme #InclusionWorks to highlight disability employment awareness in October. National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrates the contributions of employees with disabilities and provides education about the value of a diverse workforce that includes their skills.

Steve Johnson, First Vice President of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired Board of Directors, has advocated for workforce inclusivity for many years. A former Council scholarship recipient, Steve has served on the board since 2012.

After being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when he was six years old, Steve lost his sight in his early 20s. In 1991, he received a kidney/pancreas transplant that he says saved his life.

“I’m very, very fortunate to have received a second chance at life and to give back to the community in a much bigger way,” Johnson remarked. “Someone gave their life to help me live. This is a small token of my appreciation to help others in some way, too.”

After completing a degree in community health education, Steve became passionate about disability workforce awareness.

“One of my major goals was to educate the greater community about disability. That led me to a position in transportation services with the regional independent living center in La Crosse.  That’s when I really got a foothold on many things,” Steve reflected. “I have a very strong background in disability rights.”

He explained that there are many factors that persons with disabilities should consider when they pursue employment. “I continue to see that many people who have vision loss don’t realize that they can work. The Social Security Administration builds incentives into their programs to help people enter the workforce. One of the very unique resources that Wisconsin offers is access to disability and elder benefit specialists.  These professionals can inform people with disabilities about how work would affect them, in terms of benefits.”

Steve has faced the challenges of living paycheck-to-paycheck. He explained that having the opportunity for employment allows individuals with disabilities the chance to experience financial flexibility without losing some of their benefits.

“From my perspective, being able to work has given me so much more than just financial flexibility. It has given me a connection with co-workers.  We build relationships. Psychologically, it’s healthy, and it makes me feel like I’m giving back,” Steve said. “In my position, I feel good when I help people find transportation-- one of the greatest challenges for persons with disabilities.”

While disability inclusion in the workplace has come a long way, Steve said there is still plenty of room for improvement. He noted that the Social Security Administration has implemented a number of programs with mixed results.

“The first thing I would like to see is a level playing field,” he noted. “When we look at persons who are blind or visually impaired versus those who are not, there’s a big gap in incentives. I would like to see everyone enjoy the same benefits. I believe that would encourage more individuals with disabilities to look into returning to the workforce. We all want Social Security to remain solvent. That only improves when there are more people in the workforce.”

Sharper Vision Store Product Feature:

Bausch and Lomb 2x Folding Lighted Magnifier

Store Feature

Magnifiers make great tools for reading in low-light conditions

This product features a folding handle that swings in and out for convenient use and easy storage in pocket, purse, briefcase, and glove box. The built-in light and popular 2" x 4,” 2X lens makes reading in low-light conditions so much easier.

Item number: MLP415; Price: $25.00

For more information about this or other products in the Sharper Vision Store, contact Manager Brent Perzentka at 608-255-1166.

Fall FRIENDS Newsletter Ready to Read

What Council products and services have made reading so much easier for Janet Sylvester who has myopic degeneration?  Why has the Greenville Lioness Club provided the Council with financial gifts for more than 10 years?  How will proceeds from this year’s online auction benefit elementary school children?  Find the answers in our latest issue of FRIENDS newsletter.  You can access it at