Blind Student Helps Make Denver Navigable For All

Many college campuses have emergency telephones marked with flashing blue lights. They don't help students like Claudia Folska. She's blind. Folska is working with the city of Denver to make the area more navigable, doing things like adding a sound component to the emergency phone booths.

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NEAL CONAN, host: On many college campuses in cities around the country, emergency telephones are marked by flashing blue lights. Claudia Folska is a student at the University of Colorado in Denver. For her, those lights aren't much help. She's been blind since she was five. But maybe those emergency telephones would work better for everybody if there was some kind of audible signal, as well. Folska studies urban design and cognitive science, and that's just one of the proposals she's come up with to make her city more navigable.

If you're blind or have another disability, what simple changes might improve your town for everybody? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Claudia Folska joins us now from a studio in Denver. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

CLAUDIA FOLSKA: Nice to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And I understand the plan to add a sound signal to those emergency blues will - is going to go ahead.

FOLSKA: Well, I hope so. I think one of the places we could really use them are at our pedestrian-oriented developments. That's where we have the RTD light rail stations, and many of them have those emergency telephones with blue lights. So if we could augment them with a ping that's really audible to folks without sight, I think it would be really helpful to find out where they are.

CONAN: And so everybody could use them. And it's interesting. You talked about those light rail crossings. There were, again, controversy over plans to install sound alarms there, too.

FOLSKA: That's right. I mean, we need to be able to know that it's folks with visual impairments or who are blind to be able to hear the train coming, right, so that they can cross safely.

CONAN: And if there's no signal, they don't know it's coming. Those trains are not all that noisy. They're electrically powered and fairly quiet.

FOLSKA: That's right. And you have the other noise around the light rail, other traffic sounds that can drown them out. And, in fact, even when they have the audible horns that are indicating that they're arriving to the platform, they're usually kind of parallel to the freight train. And when that freight train goes by, you can't hear those oncoming electric cars at all.

CONAN: And it's interesting. Obviously, the people who live in that area don't necessarily want some big klaxon going off, either.

FOLSKA: Indeed.

CONAN: So it has to be a compromise.

FOLSKA: That's right.

CONAN: And I wonder, though, as you get into these issues, why is it that you decided to study urban design?

FOLSKA: Well, you know, it's interesting. We all live in the built environment, and I think it's more and more important for people with disabilities to acquire the education so that they can pretty much be the driver of their boat, you know, to be a voice at the table and to make a contribution in a scholarly way that addresses their needs, but also improves the quality of life for everyone.

CONAN: So it's not just about the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's about improving the downtown environment.

FOLSKA: Exactly.

CONAN: Now, I know that you went ahead and did, as part of your research, sort of an examination with other people who are blind and asked them to draw up maps of how they navigated Denver.

FOLSKA: That's right. I did.

CONAN: And what did you find out?

FOLSKA: Well, they were pretty well strikingly similar, and that was in the article that came out in Wired magazine this month. But I think the first important piece of that is that folks without sight - whether they be congenitally blind or adventitiously blind - are capable of drawing a legible sketch map of their - environment. In this case, it was from the light rail station in Littleton, Colorado, to the Colorado Center for the Blind.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And there were similar markings on their maps.

FOLSKA: That's right. The primary emphasis on every map was the path. And it's well-established in the academic literature that what is the fundamental background for an individual's cognitive map, that is how they recall an urban environment where their are is grounded on the path that they take, and a path is path because it has an edge. So, you know, the sidewalk is an excellent example of a path, and that's how people without sight really can navigate through the built environment. Then along the path and within the path, you find different kinds of landmarks, and sighted people use landmarks like the Rocky Mountains or the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty or, you know, large things they can see off in a distance. And, obviously, that isn't possible for somebody without sight, so their landmarks are really imbedded in that path.

CONAN: And imbedded in that path were things like - I was interested to read in that article in Wired magazine - the burning bush.

FOLSKA: Right. Right. And oftentimes - and this happens in neighborhoods alike where people have - there are gardens overgrowing, the trees or bushes and, you know, it's not something that a person without sight would really anticipate come into contact with. I have a friend who's blind in Reno, and he does something called guerilla gardening where he goes out. He's blind, and he takes some shears, and when he crashes into these bushes...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOLSKA: ...chops them up, you know, so he's doing his neighbors a favor, I reckon.

CONAN: Known as the burning bush because everybody ran into it one time or another, yeah.

FOLSKA: Uh-huh. Exactly.

CONAN: There was also the DNA pole.

FOLSKA: That's right. So ill-placed things that are - signs, for example. Poles that have signs that are conveying information to sighted people, whether it'd be the bus stop or when the bus comes or what buses come or stop, danger, don't enter, detour; many of those signs could be permanent even, and they are not - they're just right in the path that you're walking on the sidewalk, and it wasn't really thought out very clearly from the engineers where to place them.

CONAN: But I was fascinated more - as interesting as those are, I was fascinated that when you looked at the paths that the blind people took, and if there was a big, blank space where none of the blind people went, there you could a find problem that's not going to be just for blind people. It's going to be for everybody.

FOLSKA: Yeah. It's interesting and a little bit ironic that it took a blind person to figure out - to be able to see what's missing, what isn't there, you know? So, right. What find in the parking lots are these vague places because they don't have any edges or paths. So those aren't really good places, and they are not good for pedestrian in general.

CONAN: So if there's a blank place, it means nobody walks there because it's too difficult, or it's too confusing, or it's just, you know, a big problem. The street is too wide. It's huge.

FOLSKA: Oftentimes, you're not able to gather enough information from your immediate environment to be able to move from your orientation to your destination. So a path is really important. And oftentimes, you know, you can have a path through a park that's a social path, you know, that people just wear out the grass and there's a rut in the road, and so that's a path as well.

CONAN: Interesting, because people create those paths because they're most useful than the paved routes the city often lays down.

FOLSKA: That's right.

CONAN: As you look as this urban design study, I wonder how your fellow students are evaluating your contribution.

FOLSKA: Well, that would be interesting.

I don't know what they think about it yet. I haven't really - I think it's interesting and, you know, I think what we can really take away from this research is that planners, architects, designers all need to be thinking of planning for a multiplicity of people, rather than your able-bodied person in the light of aging population and that demographic. And it's something that's really important for us all to be able to maintain independent living and quality of life.

CONAN: When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, a lot of urban planners and a lot of cities really thought of it as a huge headache. They had to retrofit things like the New York City subway to be, you know, accessible to people in wheelchairs. It's not going to be an easy to do. But as places now go ahead with projects like light rail, which is exploding all over the country, these kinds of designs can be incorporated from the beginning.

FOLSKA: Well, that's my hope. And I will say that when the Americans with Disabilities Act really came out in 1991, it was pretty easy to identify, you know, the physical things that needed to be changed to make it - built environment accessible for people in wheelchairs. And at that time, we didn't have the kind of technology that we have today that will enable people without sight to have access to information. So all of the signs that are ubiquitous, whether they'd be in airports or train stations and light rail stations - and you're absolutely right, Denver is exploding on the scene with the largest investment in light rail ever in American history. So it's important that we can pull those things together now and really embrace the technology that we have and put them into our light rail stations so that all people have access to information in a sort of multisensory modality.

CONAN: I also wonder how modern technology is going to affect this if a blind person, for example, carrying around a device that knows where he or she is. Can't that device say, oh, by the way, there's a red light. Wait 30 seconds and it will turn green?

FOLSKA: Well, there's a lot of different kinds of technology that folks without sight can take advantage of. I think that - but, you know, the question is what - how accurate is it? And how reliable is it? And under what - in what kind of context is it being used? So if you're relying on a piece of technology to tell you that it's safe to cross a major intersection, that might not be as reliable as just following the flow of the traffic that blind people are already trained to do.

CONAN: Nevertheless, it can tell you an alternate route if a street is blocked or something like that.

FOLSKA: Yes. Yes, it can.

CONAN: Do you use a smartphone with GPS?

FOLSKA: No. Unfortunately, the smartphones - well, I haven't - I know there's a new one out, and I have to go - the - what is it? The Apple 4.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLSKA: I have to go investigate that. But, unfortunately, one of the problems I find with technology is that you've got a bunch of engineers that are building stuff that's cool to them, but they're sighted. And so, oftentimes, they're not taking into account the fact that people want the old-fashioned ability to feel the tactile buttons, right, the raised buttons on phones. So I'm a little skeptical about that, but that happens on a lot of different technology, whether it's your microwave or your washer and dryer, just simple things in your house that no longer have any tactile information that you can use.

CONAN: We're talking with Claudia Folska who's a dual doctorate student at the University of Colorado, studying urban design and cognitive science about their contributions to urban design from people with disabilities. She's blind. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Will the ultimate answer to those kinds of questions be voice commands because the new 4S phone from Apple does have improved vocal commands?

FOLSKA: Well, it would seemed so, although the other problem is your privacy. So as you are blind and walking around, talking to your phone and then getting the feedback, then that information is broadcast to everyone. So I can probably just...

CONAN: Anybody who wants to listen to it, yeah. So I hadn't thought of that. Obviously, of course, there's a privacy issue. What other projects are you working on?

FOLSKA: Isn't that enough?

CONAN: Well, yeah. I think that's pretty much taking up all of my time right now. I plan to defend my dissertation next year, early in the spring, so that's really taking my focus.

Well, good luck with your dissertation when it comes up. And by the way, people might recognize your voice. You called in a couple of weeks ago.

FOLSKA: I did. I did. I - a big fan of Jacques Pepin and listen to his cooking shows all the time, and I learned a lot from him about how to cook. And so, I guess, I do another plan. I have a little cooking show idea that I'm building on called "Cooking in the Dark: Connecting Communities Through Yummy Food," and the idea is to really connect different communities in our local neighborhood and in Colorado, really. So spending 10 minutes on the farm and learning about the value of organic farming and then taking those items to a local chef who's a regional, seasonal organic chef, and then - and learning from them and cooking in my kitchen. So that's something that is - I'm planning for the future.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that too. Claudia Folska...

FOLSKA: Thank you.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for your time today.

FOLSKA: And thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll talk about your letters.

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