Deaf Access and Disability Rights Update

 

Good afternoon! Many of you are aware of my advocacy on behalf of Wisconsin’s Deaf community and Wisconsinites with disabilities. As we near the halfway point of this Biennium, I wanted to provide an update on those advocacy efforts by highlighting some important legislative wins for the Deaf and disability communities, but to also highlight recent setbacks. We deserve to celebrate the important work that has been accomplished, but we also need to remain clear-eyed and committed to rooting out injustice when it rears its ugly head.


What We’ve Accomplished So Far:

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2019 Wisconsin Act 17

 

Back in July, I was thrilled to see Assembly Bill 250, my signature Deaf Access bill for Wisconsin, signed into law by Governor Evers as 2019 Act 17. This bill provides important protections for Wisconsin’s Deaf and sign language interpreter communities by updating sign language interpreter licensing regulations in our state. Previously, due to poorly-defined scopes of practice for sign language interpreters, Wisconsin’s Deaf community was being underserved and even put in dangerous or life-altering positions by having to rely on interpreters who were either uncomfortable or not qualified to interpret in particularly technical cases (such as medical, legal, or mental health settings). Furthermore, sign language interpreters were being forced out of their field by extremely limited access to the exams needed for licensing and an outdated licensing scheme that required them to take very difficult advanced-level examinations whether they planned on interpreting in technical scenarios or not.


By passing AB 250 into law, we were able to codify more appropriate scopes of practice for sign language interpreters in order to better serve and protect Wisconsin’s Deaf community, and we were also able to reformulate licensing requirements for Wisconsin’s sign language interpreters to make sure that those currently working in the field were not in danger of losing their licenses and to make sure that those who want to serve as sign language interpreters are better able to do so!  

 

In another win for Deaf visibility during our push for AB 250, I am incredibly proud to share that I had the honor of delivering the first Floor Speech in American Sign Language in Wisconsin state history! You can watch my full speech in ASL with English captions here, or in both ASL and spoken English here.  


This bill would never have been passed without the advocacy and hard work of my co-authors, Rep. Ken Skowronski, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Sen. Patrick Testin, and Sen. LaTonya Johnson, their staffs, and the tireless work of Wisconsin’s Deaf and sign language interpreter communities, and I am so proud we were all able to work together to make this important legislation happen!

 

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Assembly Bill 168

 

Back in April, I was proud to introduce Assembly Bill 168, relating to stating one’s name and address prior to voting, alongside my Republican colleague Rep. Shannon Zimmerman. For most Wisconsinites, stating your name and address prior to receiving a ballot is a simple act - you walk up to the election official, provide proper identification, state your name and address to confirm them, and receive your ballot. Quick and simple, right? Well, for voters with disabilities, it is often not nearly so cut-and-dry. For some voters with disabilities, the existing requirement to actually vocalize one’s name and address before receiving their ballot adds an undue burden to the voting process - some disabilities render the act of speaking either overly difficult or even impossible, and being forced to speak in order to receive a ballot may also present a trigger for past traumatic events where individuals with difficulties speaking were coerced or forced into doing so. Elections and voting are a cornerstone of our democracy, and forcing this burden on voters with disabilities is both shameful and unnecessary.

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Simply put, AB 168 provides an alternative to the existing requirement that voters state their name and address before being allowed to vote for those individuals whose disabilities preclude them from speaking. Not only does this small change provide a simple way to protect and preserve the franchise for these voters with disabilities, but it also has precedent already in statute: voters for whom it could be unsafe to publicly state their name and address (such as victims of domestic abuse, stalking, or sexual assault) are allowed to vote upon just presenting proper identification, without the need to state their name and address. Expanding these allowances to voters with disabilities presents a commonsense way to protect the franchise for voters with disabilities and make sure that everyone has access to their constitutional right to vote.


I am very proud to say that Assembly Bill 168 has passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously and is on its way to Governor Evers to be signed into law!


What Still Needs to Be Done:


While we have seen some important victories and movement this Session when it comes to Deaf and disability issues, recent events in the Capitol have unfortunately illustrated just how committed we must remain in our advocacy on these issues, and on disability rights in particular. 

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Over the course of this year, my colleague Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who is paralyzed, has been consistently mistreated and disenfranchised by Assembly Republican leadership. At first, Republican leadership showed a stubborn refusal to substantively accommodate Rep. Anderson’s needs in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then, when finally agreeing to implement some of the accommodations he had requested (only after public opinion showed how unpopular their pettiness was proving to be), they cynically paired those accommodations with new rules that would weaken the power of Democrats in the Assembly. 


During the floor session earlier this month to debate Assembly Resolution 12, the resolution package including those accommodations and the new rules changes, Rep. Anderson delivered one of the most moving speeches I have heard in my time as a state legislator. 


In a speech that never should have been necessary, Rep. Anderson was forced to recount the tragic circumstances that led to his disability, the deeply-personal details of his daily care routine, why he needed and had requested accommodations, and the horrible and mean-spirited treatment he had suffered at the hands of Republican leadership in seeking those accommodations. After months of stalled negotiations, dismissed concerns, and mistreatment, Rep. Anderson bared his soul on October 10th to those of us gathered in the Assembly Chamber, the observers in the gallery, and everyone watching the live stream of the Session that day, and brought many to tears. Rep. Anderson’s speech was brave, it was vulnerable, it was heartfelt, and it is truly a shame that he even needed to deliver it - our citizens with disabilities are entitled to the same rights as anyone else, and that Republicans were unwilling to celebrate - or even recognize - that fact is truly disappointing. I encourage you to watch Rep. Anderson’s full speech, linked here


That we even need to keep having debates like this in 2019, almost 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law under President George H.W. Bush, is deeply disappointing to me as a disability rights advocate, as a State Representative, and as an American. But rest assured, as your State Representative, I am deeply committed to fighting for the rights of all of our citizens, and will never stop in my drive to do what is right.