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Claudia Folska doesn't need to see to have vision

Claudia Folska offers her elbow to her companion and leads him through a pedestrian tunnel that connects a noisy light-rail platform to a parking lot. The tunnel is dark and wild inside. A cacophony of recorded bells and whistles echoes off the walls, which are decorated with long tubes of pink, blue and green neon lights. The lights and sounds are part of a public art piece that looks like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but for Folska and the man gripping her elbow — an urban planner named Tareq Wafaie — they're incredibly disorienting.

Wafaie is blindfolded. Folska is blind.

They've spent the afternoon riding Denver's public transportation system, traveling from the Southmoor station near Folska's house in southeast Denver to the bustling 16th Street Mall. Along the way, Folska has pointed out the hazards and frustrations of navigating when you can't see. For instance, many light-rail trains are too quiet to hear until they've already arrived and the whooshing automatic doors open in illogical places along the platform. There are dangerous walking paths and tricky escalators and hanging plants that no amount of expert maneuvering with a red-and-white cane can detect. And then there are the "virtual corners" — corners without curbs that are easier for wheelchairs but whose slopes provide no clues to blind pedestrians as to where to cross the street, meaning they could end up in the middle of a busy intersection.

Claudia Folska is blind, but she's got a clear vision for the future of public transportation.
Anthony Camera
Claudia Folska is blind, but she's got a clear vision for the future of public transportation.
RTD boardmember Tom Tobiassen encouraged Claudia Folska to run for the District E seat.
Anthony Camera
RTD boardmember Tom Tobiassen encouraged Claudia Folska to run for the District E seat.

See also: RTD: Meet the three men running against Westword cover girl Claudia Folska

Folska and Wafaie emerge from the clanging tunnel into the midday sun. Folska makes a sharp left and Wafaie follows; his halting and unsure footsteps contrast sharply with her confident ones. "Do you always walk this slowly?" he asks, his chin jutting out slightly and his eyes masked by a red bandanna. Wafaie has agreed to take a blindfolded trip on public transit to prepare for a presentation he and Folska are giving for the non-profit Downtown Colorado, Inc. "No," she admits with a smile, "I usually walk faster."

"This is insane, trying to navigate this world," he says as he and Folska make their way up a twisting ramp to the parking lot, Wafaie's free hand running along the railing. But Folska does it every day — and she does it with the same fearlessness and ingenuity that has guided most of her life, whether it was completing a dual doctorate in urban planning and cognitive science from the University of Colorado this past spring or in her latest challenge: launching a campaign for an open seat on the Regional Transportation District board of directors, a race that, for most voters, is an afterthought at the very bottom of the ballot.

For Folska, RTD is a necessary behemoth, a system of buses and trains that costs $445 million to operate each year, moves 100 million people, is in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar expansion, and has a simple purpose: to make sure that everybody, regardless of ability, has the chance to be independent.

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If Folska isn't carrying her cane, it's hard to tell that she's blind. She moves so fluidly through whatever space she's navigating that people wonder if she's faking it. She's not, and here's how you can tell: by the way she pushes every button in the elevator because she's not sure which one leads to the lobby, by the fruit sticker clinging to her shirt when she visits the Colorado Secretary of State's office, and by how one night at happy hour at a cozy French bistro, she knocks over a glass of white wine, shattering the glass and soaking her companions — after which she quips that smooth moves like that should erase any doubt that she can't see much beyond distinguishing light from dark.

But most of the time, Folska exudes grace. At 48, she's classically pretty, with dark copper hair that falls just below her shoulders. She's fashionable but not funky; at a recent RTD board meeting, she wore form-fitting jeans, an attractive camel-colored leather blazer over a white button-down shirt, sandals and bright-red toenail polish. Most of her clothes are simple — nearly all of her suits are dark and her shirts are white — so it's easy to match them. She leaves her toenails to a professional but does her makeup herself, though as to whether she matches every day from head to toe (which she does), Folska says, "I wouldn't bet my life on it."

She has a warm personality that makes her instantly likable, and a wit that puts people at ease. For instance, she likes to joke that she once groped Arnold Schwarzenegger at a physical-fitness event in California — a feat she could get away with because she's blind.

"I'm the best blind date you'll ever have," Folska likes to say.

"She's full of spit and vinegar, that girl," says friend Kelly Egan, who's known Folska for more than a decade. "She acts as if she's as capable as the next guy, and she is."

The two met when Egan hired Folska to do marketing for a company that helps integrate people with disabilities, older adults and veterans into corporate America. Oddly, Egan herself was diagnosed a year and a half ago with a degenerative condition that's caused her to lose her eyesight. Folska, she says, has been an inspiration. "She is the best blind person you can possibly be," Egan says. "'You might as well be good at whatever you do,' is sort of the attitude."

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8 comments
jbelef
jbelef

I've had the opportunity to meet and hear Claudia Folska speak on the issues.  Even without her unique experience as a disabled RTD user, her credentials to be on the RTD board far outweigh all the other candidates combined!. See more here: http://www.claudia4rtd.com/

John
John like.author.displayName 1 Like

She's very cute!

tjtobiassen1
tjtobiassen1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Claudia Folska is very dynamic and multifaceted.   Check out Claudia Folska’s TV cooking show appropriately (on several levels) called “Cooking In the Dark”.  The out-takes are funny!  http://www.cookinginthedark.com/  …  

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg topcommenter like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I too , share Folska's reliance on public transportation . My service dog & I wouldn't leave home w/o RTD's assistance . My ailments that prevent my driving are relatively new . I became dependent on the bus & for the most part , am pleased w/ it's services and understanding of needed expansions .

RTD , for the past 15 + yrs ,   has striven to keep up w/ Denver's exploding population growth . If I were to grade the system as a whole , I'd give them 9 out of 10 stars . The addition of Folska could bring it to 10 out of 10 !

Tom Tobiassen
Tom Tobiassen

Claudia will be an asset on the RTD Board of Directors! Her knowledge and vision for RTD is second to none for this volunteer position. Claudia relies on RTD's buses and light rail for work, school, shopping since she does not drive or own a car. Claudia understands the needs of the rider. She clearly is the best qualified and most knowledgeable candidate.

tjtobiassen2
tjtobiassen2 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Check out the videos about Claudia Folska at www.Claudia4RTD.com  ....  

Tom Tobiassen
Tom Tobiassen

Claudia will be an asset on the RTD Board of Directors! Her knowledge and vision for RTD is second to none for this volunteer position. She clearly is the best qualified and most knowledgeable candidate and does not need the "sympathy" vote!

 
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