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What's it Really Like to be Blind? Tom Porter Gets a Taste

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Michael Barndollar
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Claudia Folska is a highly-qualified professional woman: She holds a dual Ph.D. - in urban planning and cognitive science - and works as a public transport official in Denver, Colorado. She's also blind. Folska's story is the inspiration behind a new documentary titled "In Blind Sight," and she's in Portland right now to promote it and to take part in a public discussion tonight on the challenges faced by blind people in the modern world. Tom Porter met with Folska this morning to find out first-hand what life is like for a sightless person in a strange city.

 

Claudia Folska likes to give people a taste of what blind people go through. No surprise that when I meet her at a hotel in downtown Portland, she presents me with a blindfold and suggests we go on a walking tour of the streets outside "and give you an opportunity to create an experience that's so salient that you'll remember how important those curbs are, or other obstacles that appear, whether they're detours, signage, phone booths, other things that really impede your safe and successful way-finding in the built environment," she says.

Tom Porter: "I wondered what this blindfold type-thing was doing on the table. Well, now I know."

Claudia Folska: "Right."

Tom Porter: "OK, well here goes."
 

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Credit Michael Barndollar
Claudia Folska shows Tom Porter how to navigate across a street.

Once I've donned the blindfold, Folska takes my arm and guides me through the hotel lobby towards the street. Unaware of what's in front, I move at a snail's pace.

"OK, we're going to make a left and we're going to go up a ramp," Folska says.

"OK, this is the blind leading the blind," I respond.

As we emerge on to the street, I realize how important the texture of the ground beneath your feet is to blind people:  Cement is good, bricks or paving stones, not so good, especially if they're uneven.

Navigating her way through a strange city, Folska is guided by smells, sounds, and an uncanny sense of timing. She knows how long she's been walking. She says physical features, like walls, should be reliable, but this is often not the case. We do have a sighted person with us as a precaution, but, nevertheless, obstacles are everywhere, and crossing the street requires nerves of steel.

Tom Porter: "This is blind faith, I can hear all this traffic around me."

Claudia Folska: "So let me have you feel these."

Tom Porter: "Whoa! Sorry - I just noticed the ground changing."
 

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Credit Michael Barndollar
Claudia Folska and Tom Porter making their way onto a city bus in Portland.

As an independent blind person, Folska is reliant on public transportation, so she decides to hop on a Portland bus - no easy task, for me anyway.

Claudia Folska: "Take a big step."

Tom Porter: "OK."

Claudia Folska: "One big step up."

Tom Porter: "That's the side, OK, yep."

"What I think of, in terms of making places and spaces, is that we need to have pedestrian engineers doing it, not traffic engineers," Folska says." And when we can make it safe and accessible for people without sight, then it works best for everybody."

An excerpt from the documentary, In Blind Sight, featuring Claudia Folska, is being screened at 6.15 tonight at the University of Southern Maine's Wishcamper Center in Portland, to be followed by a Q&A session featuring the film-makers and Folska herself.

The full movie is still in production.