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Locals recognize upcoming anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act

A few summers ago, Eau Claire native Chris Wood participated in a unique event in Washington, D.C. Alongside many other people with disabilities, Wood watched as many of them crawled up the United States Capitol steps.

The action mirrored an event that occurred in the spring of 1990 and was instrumental in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act later that year. The ADA, which was signed into law July 26, is a landmark piece of legislation that provided equal rights for people with disabilities, who account for about one-fifth of the country’s population.

During the event, Wood, who has cerebral palsy and has done disability advocacy work for many years, felt fortunate that he and millions of people like him were granted legal protection in many areas under the ADA.

“It was very emotional for me, just knowing that if I had lived even 10 years earlier I might’ve been locked up in an institution,” Wood said. “It really hit home how important that piece of legislation is.”

For Wood and many people in the Chippewa Valley, the ADA represents fuller participation in society. It mandates equal access to employment, transportation, government programs and facilities, public settings, service animals and information. Some of the ADA’s most noticeable effects include disability signs, hallway handrails, entrance ramps to buildings, and accessible seating, door handles, restrooms and parking spots.

The ADA enabled Wood, 31, to attend UW-Stout, earn a degree and secure his current occupation as a disability job coach. Despite the legal standards under the ADA, Wood sometimes has had to challenge institutions for his rights, such as accessible bathrooms.

“Not every business or not every institution was, shall we say, willing to accommodate,” Wood said. “You still have to fight like hell for your rights sometimes.”

Reasonable accommodation from businesses for deaf and hard of hearing people is another important pillar under the ADA. Local resident Erin Odegard is deaf and cannot imagine living without services required under the ADA, saying she likely wouldn’t have a job without the legal protection.

Interpreters are the most significant aspect of those accommodations for Odegard, who utilizes their services on a near daily basis. (Odegard spoke with the Leader-Telegram over the phone using an interpreter).

Odegard said COVID-19 has presented some challenges, such as interpreters working remotely instead of in-person, but local businesses are willing to accommodate her. She added that technology has “bridged the gap” for some people who had communication challenges, and Odegard hopes that will continue to improve in the years ahead.

Wood said the Chippewa Valley is very accommodating overall, but he said education about disability rights could be better. Wood believes that is particularly important for parents raising children with disabilities.

“When their kid gets out of high school, they don’t know where to go, they don’t know where to turn, they don’t know what’s there to protect them,” Wood said.

Online exhibit

A new local display could play a role in improving education. To honor the three decades that have passed since the ADA became law, UW-Eau Claire organized a digital exhibit, “ADA30: Accessibility in the Chippewa Valley.”

Conceived of by Katherine Schneider, an Eau Claire County Board supervisor and UW-Eau Claire psychologist emerita, the exhibit provides information about the ADA and highlights local and national examples.

It was initially planned to be a physical display on campus, but that changed after coronavirus. Schneider, who is blind, said that may benefit the exhibit, since more people can access it online at

Schneider said the ADA is crucial because it requires equal access that may not have otherwise occurred.

“People with disabilities historically have been sidelined,” Schneider said. “If something’s been provided, it’s separate and oftentimes unequal … It’s a law, but the only reason it becomes a reality is because people take it on and do something about it when they find something that’s inaccessible. If people don’t embrace it, it isn’t going to happen.”

Schneider also wrote a poem celebrating the ADA that is included in the exhibit. Inspired by “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, the ending of Schneider’s poem reads: “We won’t stop until all can play / Work, love and pray in whatever way. / So celebrate with us. Because of the ADA / And caring people, we can say / Together we’ll all rise!”

Greg Kocken, UW-Eau Claire special collections librarian and archivist, helped organize the exhibit. It will be available through at least the end of December, and Kocken said the digital display could stay up through the 2021 spring semester.

Kocken learned a lot while working on the exhibit, such as the importance of accessible door handles and curb cuts where a sidewalk and road intersect.

“I saw this as an opportunity to educate myself,” Kocken said. “Like so many Americans, I see accessible parking and other elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act every single day, often without knowing or fully understanding or, honestly, appreciating why these elements are part of our society.”

The ADA mandates changes that may appear small, but the adjustments can make a huge difference for someone with disabilities. Schneider said many able-bodied people don’t notice the benefits until they have an injury and limited mobility, for example. The ADA has small positive unintended consequences as well, such as ramps that help people pushing strollers.

Odegard said able-bodied people should learn from people with disabilities because it will lead to improvements for society as a whole.

“If people don’t listen to our experiences, there’s no way to change the system and have it better and more accessible,” Odegard said.

Kocken agreed and hopes visitors view their surrounding differently and recognize why certain aspects are needed for people with disabilities.

“I hope others who view this site walk away from this, just as I have, by being able to see the world around them in a new light,” Kocken said.

Local progress

The exhibit may also provide the chance to consider areas for improvement, such as making entryways inside buildings easier to use. Kocken noted that nearly all exterior doors on public buildings have automatic capabilities and entrance ramps, but not all interior doors are accessible for people with disabilities.

Wood also mentioned a few local areas for improvement. Those include more consistent transportation options and developers consulting with a disability expert to make sure a new building is equally accessible.

“Design everything with people with disabilities in mind first, and then everybody benefits,” Wood said.

On a more personal level, Wood said an important aspect involves presuming competence and talking directly to people with disabilities. For example, he recalled many times at restaurants when a waiter asked his parents what Wood wanted to order instead of asking him.

“Always presume that the person with a disability can speak for themselves,” Wood said. “It’s a much more powerful thing … If societies do that, people with disabilities open up right away and tell you their story. We’re kind of fun sometimes.”

Schneider said local accommodations are good but noted that COVID-19 has altered her life in recent months. Touching public surfaces to read braille now poses a risk, for example. The main area that will require work going forward involves digital communication services, she said. That is especially true during the pandemic, when the vast majority of information is most accessible online.

“It’s more and more necessary for blind people using screen reading technology to have access,” Schneider said.

The County Board and Eau Claire City Council recently passed resolutions declaring July 26 American with Disabilities Act Awareness Day. On that day next week, Schneider will enjoy the progress made. Her plans include withdrawing money from an ATM with audio assistance, something that was not available before the ADA. She also plans to go on a walk with her black lab Calvin, a Seeing Eye dog, since service animals are universally covered by the ADA after previously being under various state laws.

In prior years, Wood often gathered with friends with disabilities to celebrate the ADA anniversary. Because of coronavirus, this year he plans to stay home and watch documentaries like “Crip Camp” on Netflix, which focuses on the disability rights movement.

For Wood, the anniversary serves as a reminder to embrace his identity.

“We’re very proud of our disabilities,” Wood said. “Most of us wouldn’t want to change it for anything.”

Wisconsin unemployment drops to 8.5%, below national rate

MADISON — Wisconsin’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.5% in June — a bit of good news that came Thursday as Democratic lawmakers released proposals to remove obstacles and broaden access to unemployment benefits.

The jobless numbers also came as Gov. Tony Evers’ administration temporarily reassigned 100 state workers to help address a backlog in claims.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate last month was far below the national rate of 11.1% and was down from the state’s high of 13.6% in April. That figure reflected the height of businesses closing across the state in response to a “safer at home” order issued by Evers to slow the spread of the virus. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was 12.1% in May.

While April’s unemployment rate had not been that high since the Great Depression, June’s 8.5% was last seen 10 years ago as Wisconsin was climbing out of the Great Recession. Unemployment then topped out just shy of 10%.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate typically trends closely with the national rate. But there’s a bigger gap now because the state has less of a concentration of jobs in sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic, said the state’s chief economist, Dennis Winters. For example, manufacturing and construction jobs in Wisconsin were less affected, helping to reduce the number of unemployed, he said.

“Another month of strong job growth and a declining unemployment rate tells us that more Wisconsinites are getting back to work, driving our economic growth,” said Department of Workforce Secretary Caleb Frostman. “The road to full economic recovery will be long and challenging, but the continued month-over-month progress is encouraging for Wisconsin’s workers and employers.”

The report shows that Wisconsin added 99,300 private sector jobs in June.

Winters said industries hardest hit earlier in the pandemic, such as leisure and hospitality, were the ones driving the recovery as businesses began to reopen.

While more people are getting back to work, the state is still struggling to process claims for those who have lost their jobs and are waiting for their benefits. Currently about 141,000 people were awaiting payments, a backlog that Republicans who control the Legislature have loudly criticized.

Wisconsin has had a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past month, breaking its records for newly confirmed cases in four of the past seven days. Health officials have attributed the surge to young people gathering at bars, restaurants and parties.

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday introduced a package of bills they said would remove hurdles to getting the benefits. Republicans have proposed tapping federal funding to pay benefits while people await verification that they qualify. Evers dismissed that idea Monday as a “political stunt.”

The Democratic bills would, among other things, lower the work search requirement necessary from four to two per week in order to receive benefits. The bills would also allow people with disabilities who are able to work to be eligible to receive unemployment. The bills would further expand the authority of the Department of Workforce Development to increase access to unemployment benefits when appropriate.

Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke responded to the proposals, saying that “Democrats are feeling the heat of Tony Evers’ failures.”

“The Evers’ administration’s response to this unemployment crisis has been nothing short of a dumpster fire,” Steineke said in a statement.

“The tired proposals trotted out today would only serve to expand eligibility to an already strained system and fuel the flames of the problem at hand.”

Steineke said the proposals would do nothing to address problems at the department and would only expand the number of people eligible for benefits.

Evers’ administration on Thursday said it was reassigning 100 state workers to help with the processing of claims. It said the reassignments average six weeks. Combining transfers, new hires and contracted vendors, the Department of Workforce Development has more than tripled the number of workers who are processing unemployment claims from 500 to 1,800, Evers’ administration said.

As of Thursday the state had seen 39,627 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 900 cases from Wednesday, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Four more people died, bringing the death toll to 831. The state had 8,236 active cases.

“The news is bad and potentially getting worse,” Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer, told reporters during a teleconference.

Russia is hacking virus vaccine trials, US, UK, Canada say

WASHINGTON (AP) — Western governments accused hackers believed to be part of Russian intelligence of trying to steal valuable private information about a coronavirus vaccine on Thursday, calling out the Kremlin in an unusually detailed public warning to scientists and medical companies.

The alleged culprit is a familiar foe. Intelligence agencies in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada alleged that the hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear and blamed for American election interference four years ago, is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions involved in COVID-19 vaccine development.

It was unclear whether any useful information was stolen. But British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “It is completely unacceptable that the Russian Intelligence Services are targeting those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”

He accused Moscow of pursuing “selfish interests with reckless behavior.”

Sticking to more general language, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “We worked very closely with our allies to ensure that we would take measures to keep that information safe and we continue do so so.”

The allegation that hackers linked to a foreign government are attempting to siphon secret medical research during the pandemic is not entirely new. U.S. officials as recently as Thursday have accused China of virtually identical conduct. But the latest public warning was startling for the detail it provided, attributing the targeting by name to a particular hacking group and specifying the software vulnerabilities the hackers have been exploiting.

Also, Russian cyberattacks strike a particular nerve in the U.S. given the Kremlin’s sophisticated campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The coordination of the new warning across continents seemed designed to add heft and gravity to the announcement and to prompt the Western targets of the hackers to protect themselves.

“I think (the governments) have very specific intelligence that they can provide,” said John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at Mandiant Threat Intelligence. “The report is full of specific operational information that defenders can use” to protect their networks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, rejected the accusations, saying: “We don’t have information about who may have hacked pharmaceutical companies and research centers in Britain.”

“We may say one thing: Russia has nothing to do with those attempts,” Peskov said, according to the state news agency Tass.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency warned in April that cybercriminals and other groups were targeting COVID-19 research, noting at the time that the increase in people teleworking because of the pandemic had created potential avenues for hackers to exploit.

The persistent attacks are seen as an effort to steal intellectual property rather than to disrupt research. Individuals’ confidential information is not believed to have been compromised.

The accusations come at a tenuous time for relations between Russia and both the U.S. and U.K. Besides political ill will, especially among Democrats, about the 2016 election interference, the Trump administration is under pressure to confront Russia over intelligence information that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban fighters to attack allied fighters.

The Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said that “it’s clear that Russia’s malign cyber operations and other destabilizing activities – from financial and other material support to non-state actors in Afghanistan to poisoning dissidents in democratic countries – have persisted, even when exposed.” He urged President Donald Trump to condemn such activities.

Relations between Russia and the U.K. have plummeted since former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Soviet-made nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in 2018, though they later recovered. Britain blamed Moscow for the attack, which triggered a round of retaliatory diplomatic expulsions between Russia and Western countries.

More broadly, Thursday’s warning announcement speaks to the vulnerability created by the pandemic and the global race for a vaccine.

Profit-motivated criminals have exploited the situation and so have foreign governments “who also have their own urgent demands for information about the pandemic and about things like vaccine research,” Tonya Ugoretz, an FBI deputy assistant director, said at a cybersecurity conference last month.

“Some of them are using their cyber capabilities to, for example, attempt to break into the networks of those who are conducting this research as well as into nongovernmental organizations to satisfy their own information needs,” Ugoretz said.

The alert did not name the targeted organizations themselves or say how many were affected. But it did say they were in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

Britain’s NCSC said its assessment was shared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency and the National Security Agency, and by the Canadian Communication Security Establishment.

The vaccine assessment came two years to the day after Trump met with Putin in Helsinki and appeared to side with Moscow over U.S. intelligence agencies about the 2016 election interference. The U.K. statement did not say whether Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking, but British officials believe such intelligence would be highly prized.

A 16-page advisory prepared by Western agencies and made public Thursday accuses the hacking group tied to Russian intelligence services and known colloquially as Cozy Bear of using custom malicious software to target a number of organizations globally. The malware, called WellMess and WellMail, has not previously been associated with the group, the advisory said.

“In recent attacks targeting COVID-19 vaccine research and development, the group conducted basic vulnerability scanning against specific external IP addresses owned by the organizations. The group then deployed public exploits against the vulnerable services identified,” the advisory said.

Cozy Bear is one of two hacking groups suspected of separate break-ins of computer networks of the Democratic National Committee before the 2016 U.S. election. Stolen emails were then published by WikiLeaks in what U.S. intelligence authorities say was an effort to aid Trump’s campaign over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

A report on Russian election interference by former special counsel Robert Mueller called out another group, Fancy Bear, in the hack-and-leak operation. Cozy Bear, though, operates “quietly gaining access and gathering intelligence,” said Hultquist of the Mandiant cybersecurity firm.

“Their job is good, old-fashioned espionage,” he said.

Separately, Thursday, Britain accused “Russian actors” of trying to interfere in December’s U.K. national election by circulating leaked or stolen documents online. Unlike in the vaccine report, the U.K. did not allege that the Russian government was involved in the political meddling.