Globe Staff Member Rallies for Legislative Action to Support College Students Who are Blind and Visually Impaired
Leading the Health Care Management Program at Globe University-La Crosse, Rhonda Staats teaches classes, works individually with students, and promotes student success in the classroom and in the community. Staats’s leadership is not limited to Globe University. She is a dynamic leader with multiple organizations, including the Wisconsin Council of The Blind and Visually Impaired.
As the Legislative Chair of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCB&VI), Staats, works to develop, promote, and pass legislation to support Wisconsin residents with disabilities. Staats has been diligently working to pass legislation that would mandate publishers of college text books make their materials available in formats to people who are blind or have other reading disabilities.
Staats has been the Legislative Chair of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired since 2001. The Council selects its legislative priorities at the beginning of each legislative session, which is every two years. Some years, the Council supports bills and initiatives brought forward by legislators or other interest groups. For example, they continually select public transportation as one of their legislative priorities because it is so important to our constituents who don’t drive cars.
Twice a decade, the WCB&VI initiates legislation and attempts to follow it through to a successful conclusion. During the 2005-2006 legislative session, the Council brought forward, and successfully passed “Casey’s Law,” a law which protects service animals from attacks by lose dogs. This bill imposes penalties on dog owners whose animals attack service animals.
Casey’s Law was named after Casey, the former guide dog of Charlotte Gotz which was killed by a lose dog attack in Milwaukee. This bill was passed unanimously in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, and there were 14 guide dogs at the bill signing which took place with Governor James Doyle at the council office in Madison. Casey’s Law was not too controversial, but it took hours and hours of legislative contacts and promotional DVD’s to explain our position and why we believed the bill was necessary.
During the 2009-2010 session, the Council first sponsored the Wisconsin Educational Media Access Bill, the bill that the council is currently working to pass. This bill would mandate that publishers of college textbooks make their materials available in alternative format to people who are blind, or have other reading disabilities. Unfortunately, the bill did not get out of Assembly Education committee. The book publishers buried the Council, employing three high-powered law firms, and significant lobbyist to make legislators understand that passage of the Educational Media Access Bill would set a dangerous precedent for the business of publishing books. Publishers stated that they had significant copyright concerns.
Undaunted, the Council brought back the Wisconsin Educational Media Access Bill for the 2011-2012 legislative go-round. These are the steps that need to happen before a bill can be voted on by committees, and then by the entire Wisconsin Assembly and Senate. First, the Council needed to find one state Senator and one State representative to sponsor the bill. So, the members made the rounds of potential legislative sponsors – people who have voted previously to support ours, or a similar agenda. In 2011-2012, Representative Joe Knilans, Republican of Janesville, and Senator Bob Wirsch, Democrat of Kenosha, agreed to sponsor the Wisconsin Educational Media Access Bill. These sponsors located a bill drafter who crafted the bill in appropriate language and format.
The group is fortunate to also be working with former Senator Gary Goyke who is now a legislative liaison. Gary effectively kept the bill before legislatives and its supporters. In the bill the Council insisted on language that designated book publishers as public entities under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was meant to have an enforcement mechanism should publishers remain out of compliance.
The publishers expressed opposition to the bill when they first saw it. The objected to being listed as a public entity under provisions of the ADA. After the bill was crafted, Council Members approached possible allies to add their support to the bill. All blindness organizations, the UW system, the State Vocational-Technical Board, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, WEAC, Disability Rights Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Veterans’ Council added their support. The Council was particularly gratified that the Veterans’ Council was playing a significant role because it is far more difficult for Wisconsin legislators to side against veterans.
The Wisconsin Educational Media Access Bill was introduced into both houses of the Wisconsin legislature in late October, 2011. Initially, the Council had 11 Assembly members and 8 Senators signed on to support the bill. Fortunately there was an even split of Republicans and Democrats. Following its introduction in both Assembly and Senate, the bill was subsequently referred to as AB322/SB485.
In late fall and early winter, the Council continued to solicit support from additional legislators and from groups they felt might assist us. In press conferences introducing the bill, they positioned the bill as a jobs bill, and the Veterans’ Council strengthened our position. In January, the Council had two conferences with the book publishers, the upshot of which was that they agreed to give up language designating publishers as public entity under the ADA, in exchange for publishers rescinding their position as being against our bill. Staats took this new compromise arrangement back to the Council in late January, and all Council members voted to go forward. It was a scary thought that, if Council members objected to letting the publishers off the hook regarding ADA, we would be back at square 1 with no bill.
Staats, and members of the WCB&VI Legislative committee have spent many hours contacting all legislators to ask for support, and Veterans, blind people, and everyone who supports our bill to see if we could get adequate personal representation and testimony at the committee hearings, or to get people who could not attend to send written testimony.
Subsequently, the Council has experienced success in the Senate Education Committee on February 23, and in the Assembly Education Committee on March 1. They are more apprehensive regarding the Assembly, because that Committee Chair is Steve Nass who habitually has been against education initiatives. In both committees, the bill sailed through on unanimous votes. Staats kept working on legislators and people in our community to offer testimony until the last minute.
The next steps for the bill are a conference between the Assembly and Senate which Rep. Knilans is scheduling. The 2011-2012 legislative session ends on March 15, so the Council might just have time to pass this bill before end of session. If the council does not get this done, the bill dies, and they will have to start all over again in 2013. This is not likely because the Council just passed out of two committees with unanimous votes. Rumor has it that the Assembly will vote 96/3 in favor.
Updates of the bill’s progress will be shared as they unfold.
Globe University-La Crosse is happy to have such a tremendous leader of change working at one of their very own universities. Staats is a terrific role modal as an instructor and as a community leader.
*Update: March 13, 2012*
Congratulations to Rhonda and the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired!
The Wisconsin Educational Media Access Bill (AB322/SB485) has been passed by the Wisconsin Assembly and the Wisconsin Senate as of 2:30 on Tuesday, March 13.
The governor will likely sign this bill into law on Tuesday, April 17. That is when the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired has its spring legislative day.
The Council and the Wisconsin Veterans’ Council brought this legislation to a very satisfactory conclusion.
There is still a small chance that the Governor will not sign the bill. He has thirty days to make the decision. This is unlikely because the bill had significant support from both parties.
Watch for an update in April! Congratulations to Rhonda and the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired!