Wisconsin has led the nation in efforts to serve disabled residents, but new challenges and approaches fuel work for the future

By Erin Gretzinger, Christy Klein and Erin McGroarty

When UW–Madison senior Elise Fjelstad started looking at colleges, she remembers checking to see if each university had a community center for students with disabilities. 


She recalls Madison was one of the campuses notably missing one.


“And that kind of signaled to me, whether or not I really feel welcomed here, in my identity,” Fjelstad says.


Fjelstad has cerebral palsy, a disability that affects muscles, body movement and coordination, and is an ambulatory wheelchair user.


“I’ve had this disability my entire life, but I didn’t start being proud of it, or embracing it as a part of who I was, until a lot later in life,” she says.


In the spirit of embracing identity and finding community, Fjelstad is now part of a group of students working to launch a disabilities cultural center on campus, an idea that was first raised in 2021 and has since gained approval from university administrators. This effort on the UW–Madison campus is a microcosm of the thriving disability activism across Wisconsin, which is known for its leadership in the disability rights movement. 


However, recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic and lawsuits threatening voting access have revealed that Wisconsin still has a long way to go. Despite the setbacks, advocates remain optimistic that the low moments Wisconsinites with disabilities have faced over the last few years will pave the way for a brighter future. 


“Having rights is one thing, but being able to exercise your rights is another challenge,” says Robin Jones, the center director of the Great Lakes ADA Center. “The law is only as good as a piece of paper that it’s written on.”

In July 2022, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a ruling that banned ballot drop boxes that were widely used throughout the state during the pandemic. In response, the City of Madison has decorated its ballot boxes in protest and blasted the court's decision as a "step backward" to make voting accessible. In addition to banning ballot boxes, the court's decision alarmed disability advocates about what the decision would mean for disabled voters. Photography by Perri Moran.

From individual activists to statewide efforts to implement disability rights legislation, Wisconsin is regarded as a national leader in this area. But the state remains far from perfect.

Recent events such as COVID-19 and voting accessibility have highlighted the current state of disability rights activism in Wisconsin. While these issues have posed new challenges for advocates, they have also provided momentum to the movement.

At UW–Madison, students with disabilities are searching for a place for community on campus. heir efforts capture common goals of the statewide disability justice movements and highlight the power of young people who hope to create a brighter future for disabled Wisconsinites.

Featured photo by Perri Moran.