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.
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.
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."
Nowadays, Folska works as a consultant on urban planning and navigation issues. One of her hobbies, though, is cooking, and she's producing and starring in a cooking show on Rocky Mountain PBS. So far, she's raised enough money to complete one full episode. The premise is that in each episode, Folska will visit a Colorado farm, learn how to cook a meal using that farm's ingredients with the help of a local chef, and then prepare the meal at home. The name of the show, "Cooking in the Dark," is a play on words meant to point out that most people don't know where their food comes from and to lightheartedly acknowledge that Folska can't see.
Folska began losing her sight when she was five, but because she has a good sense of direction, she wasn't formally diagnosed until she was thirteen. "By then," she says, "it was pretty bad." She spent most of her childhood in Santa Monica, and though she had friends, she hated school. "I'm sitting there, twiddling my thumbs and doodling, while everyone is reading," she says now. "There were always in-class assignments that required vision."
In high school, a vocational-rehabilitation counselor told her she had two career choices: to become a film developer or a medical transcriber. In those days, Folska explains, "that's the track they were putting people on." But Folska was deeply involved in the school's drama program at the time and was aghast at that advice. "I'm like, 'What? I'm a thespian! Are you kidding?'" Folska recalls. Though she eventually realized it'd be difficult to make a living as an actress, especially a blind one, she refused to believe her only choices would be a handful of unexciting jobs. "I realized early on that life is going to be harder, period," she says, "and I need to figure out how to navigate life and be as educated as I can in order to support myself."
So Folska enrolled at a local junior college, signing up for algebra and art history. The college had an office to assist students with disabilities, and for the first time, Folska was provided with a person to take notes for her in class. She figured out much of the rest on her own, requesting the syllabus early so she could send copies of her textbooks to Recording for the Blind, which makes books on tape (and is now called Learning Ally), and, when the recordings didn't come back fast enough, hiring smart high-school students to read to her. But some professors refused to make simple accommodations, such as saying out loud what they were writing on the board. One told her he "didn't get paid to go out of my way for you."
Folska eventually transferred to the University of Southern California to major in psychology. One class assignment focused on how the brain forms stereotypes. It was a concept Folska identified with. Her classmates, she says, often assumed she was stoned "because I couldn't see and my eyes are kind of dilated or whatever and foggy." (Nowadays, when Folska fails to make eye contact, she says most people assume she's deep in thought.) For her assignment, Folska came up with a way to change people's assumptions.
"I said, 'I'm going to put sighted people on the front of tandem bicycles and blind people on the back and then send them off on a bike ride," she says. "And by the time they get back, everybody will have demystified the stereotypes.'" Cycling was popular in Southern California, and Folska's idea was to use the sport as a way for blind people and sighted people to interact.
"When you have a positive activity where people are engaged, in the course of that activity, a natural conversation occurs," Folska says. "After ten, twenty miles, each person has gained a new understanding of the other, and the whole blind issue fades away."
Not satisfied with living in theory, Folska decided to turn her paper into reality. In 1988, she convinced the Santa Monica City Council to pay for three cheap tandem beach cruisers in order to pilot her idea. She recruited blind riders, came up with a name — Eyecycle — then trained sighted riders to "captain" the bikes by having them first ride in the back blindfolded to get a blind rider's perspective.
"Everybody loved it," she says. "It was a smashing success."
Eyecycle was soon a bona fide nonprofit and it caught the eye of the California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports — hence the meeting with Schwarzenegger, who was chairman at the time — as well as of the press, which led to the establishment of Eyecycle chapters in other states, including Colorado. (Folska serves on the board of the local chapter.)
In May 1994, Folska decided to promote the organization by riding across America on the back of a tandem. By then, she'd gone back to school at USC to earn her master's in business administration and married a man who was originally from Pakistan. After her cross-country ride, she and her husband moved to Islamabad, and Folska got a job teaching English in rural areas.
Long-distance biking proved addictive, however, and once she found a captain — the son of an Italian ambassador — Folska attempted another ride, this time from Pakistan to China. It was thrilling, she says, but her spouse was growing tired of her athletic pursuits. "My husband said, 'I think you're riding around the world enough. Let's make a family,'" Folska recalls. Their daughter, Sabine, was born in 1996. Political tension in Pakistan prompted the family to move back to California in 1998, and tension in Folska's marriage led to a divorce and a search for a new place to live. "I looked at the whole map of America and I said, 'Who's got the best transit and the best climate and the right size of population density?' and so on," she says. "I chose Denver."
While RTD is often at the center of political disputes in the metro area — and often criticized for service cuts or fare increases — the Denver area tops U.S. News and World Report's list of the "10 Best Cities for Public Transportation" and regularly ranks high on similar lists.
The district is funded by sales taxes: six-tenths of 1 percent pays for the buses and trains, while another four-tenths of 1 percent funds FasTracks, a project approved by voters in 2004 to build 122 miles of commuter and light rail, eighteen miles of bus rapid transit, and 21,000 new parking spaces at stations. Completing FasTracks has been slower and more controversial than RTD had hoped; due to funding shortfalls, it's currently scheduled to be finished in 2044.
The people who pay those taxes live within a jagged boundary that includes all or part of eight counties and stretches north to Lyons, west past Evergreen, east into Aurora and south into the Pike National Forest. The district is split up into fifteen pieces, each of which is represented by an elected director. In most cities around the country, transportation directors are appointed; RTD is one of only three boards whose members are elected.
Folska is running to represent District E, which includes parts of Denver, Aurora, Greenwood Village and Centennial. Her competitors for the seat are Jeff Bjorlin, a mortgage banker; Dave Williams, a lawyer and libertarian blogger; and Vince Chowdhury, an insurance agent and former Jefferson County Board of Education member who resigned in 2008 following an incident in which he was arrested for slapping his teenage daughter.
"Claudia has a special case and would receive a sympathy vote, and none of us can compete," Chowdhury says. "But all we can do is communicate our platforms."
Endorsements are important in a small-money race like this, and Folska's list of supporters is impressive. It includes ten RTD boardmembers, U.S. representatives Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, several state senators, city council members and the Denver Area Labor Federation. She's also been endorsed by the mayors of every city in her district except Centennial, whose mayor politely explained that she does not pick candidates.
The four candidates in Folska's race don't differ wildly in their opinions. Most want to improve RTD's efficiency, boost accountability and increase ridership. What sets Folska apart, her supporters say, is the depth of her knowledge. She's just as comfortable discussing the nitty-gritty of budget proposals and potential route changes as she is talking about the big picture.
"She has the capacity to understand the technology of transit — the details of it and the bottom line," says Stan Gronek, the financial secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which has endorsed Folska, "and she has the heart for the passenger, particularly the segment of disabled passengers who really need public transportation."
Her knowledge comes from experience with the world as well as with academics.
After living in Denver for a few years, Folska decided to go back to school once more, this time to earn a Ph.D. Inspired by her time in Pakistan, she set out to study the plight of women in developing countries. But that changed.
"I had this professor who said, 'You should study how blind people navigate in the built environment,'" Folska says. "I was so angry! I thought, just because I'm blind, I always gotta do blind stuff? But then I realized there wasn't anybody else. And I thought, do I want some sighted person to tell me, or should I do it myself, and for all of us?"
So she switched her focus, custom-tailoring an area of study that spanned the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning and the CU Boulder Institute of Cognitive Science. For her dissertation, she asked blind people to draw maps of the route they walk from the light-rail station in downtown Littleton to the nearby Colorado Center for the Blind. "The question," she says, "was, 'Do blind people develop cognitive maps? And if they do, how are they similar or different to those of sighted people?'" To explain her findings in the simplest terms, she discovered that they do, but instead of using distant landmarks such as mountains or buildings, blind people navigate more often with sounds, smells and textures.
She took her research a step farther by examining so-called transit-oriented development, a hot but often poorly executed concept that consists of mixed-use residential and commercial properties clustered around a transportation hub such as a light-rail station. Folska prefers to call them "pedestrian-oriented developments," though many of them aren't. For instance, while there may be restaurants and shops next to a station, you have to drive to get there; oftentimes, there's no sidewalk that connects the stations to the shops.
In early 2011, as she was deep into her dissertation, Folska heard about a plan to install "quiet crossings" at eleven intersections along the West Rail Line, which is scheduled to begin operating next year. "I just flipped out," she says. She fired off an e-mail to the RTD board, expressing her concern that nixing the "ding, ding!" was dangerous.
Boardmember Tom Tobiassen, who represents District F, responded and encouraged her to attend the next meeting of the Public Utilities Commission, which was charged with deciding whether to okay the proposal. Folska did, and she soon found herself on the corner of West 13th Avenue and Teller Street with a PUC judge, listening to lower-decibel test bell sounds in an attempt to find a compromise.
With one concerned e-mail and a little encouragement, Folska went from frequent RTD user to RTD problem-solver. In Folska, Tobiassen recognized a real public-transportation expert, and he accepted her invitation to take him on a blindfolded tour of several transit-oriented development sites. "I wasn't aware of the issues," he says. But it was clear Folska was. "She knows the system better than anyone I can imagine," he says. "She knows it blindfolded." When it came time for candidates to sign up to run, he encouraged her to throw her hat in the ring.
At first Folska said no way. But the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. As her Ph.D. was coming to an end, she says, "I thought, I need to be in a position where I can help build policy, because I do really know something. I come with this really unique perspective in that I've grown up on public transit, my daughter has grown up on public transit, I've used it all over the world, I'm not afraid of it, I understand how it works."
So she went for it. And in true Folska fashion, she didn't waste any time. The afternoon of the day she defended her dissertation, she was at a chamber of commerce meeting, shaking hands and drumming up votes. Her campaign slogan? "Public transit matters."
The peel-off name tag with the googly eye refuses to stay stuck to Folska's dress. She's at a late-afternoon fundraiser for Eyecycle Colorado on the rooftop patio of the Denver Athletic Club. The googly eye was a cute touch, but it has to go. Folska folds up the paper name tag and replaces it with a plastic one held on by a magnetic clasp. "Candidate for RTD," it says.
The fundraiser is a silent auction and wine tasting hosted at the DAC thanks to the club's general manager, Andre van Hall, who recently lost his sight and began riding with Eyecycle. Folska makes her way from table to table, bidding on just a few items but tasting all of the wine. Most of it, she likes. One glass of white she doesn't. "I should have spit it out," she says as she walks away, "but I didn't know where to spit."
Lately, Folska has been making the rounds of service-club meetings, political breakfasts, Democratic Party fundraisers (though the RTD is nonpartisan, Folska is a Democrat) and RTD-related events. Even though this soiree isn't part of her campaign schedule, she doesn't miss an opportunity to hand out cards and talk transportation. Most people don't know much about it. "Oh, candidate for RTD board!" one woman says upon reading Folska's card. "I don't even know what district we live in!"
But while admiring an antique baby cradle for auction, Folska encounters someone who gets it. Janet Leonard came to the fundraiser with friends; her ex-husband is blind. "I'm well aware of the foibles of the blind and RTD, the lack of service and the inattention," Leonard tells Folska. "What brought you to run for it? Frustration?"
"Sort of," Folska answers. "I think there's a lack of what you just said because we're not at the table."
Folska has plenty of ideas for improving RTD. Some of them are small and practical. For instance, she'd like to change the ticket vending machines at light-rail stations. The sun glare on the screen makes them impossible to read for sighted people. For blind people, the machines will speak instructions out loud — but only if you push a button. To tell which button to push, Folska points out, you have to be able to see it.
Others ideas are big. Folska would like RTD to finish the FasTracks project by 2020 using a combination of federal money and cost savings. One area for improvement, she says, is RTD's paratransit, which includes the Access-a-Ride program, the small buses that provide transportation for people with disabilities. In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the average cost per passenger was $56.61, as opposed to $4.23 for RTD's regular buses and rail, which have more riders and a larger economy of scale. But not everyone who uses Access-a-Ride needs such a big, wheelchair-accessible vehicle, Folska says. Blind people, for example, would be served just as well by sedans that would take them door to door, like Access-a-Ride does, but cost less to buy and use less gas.
Folska would also like to create jobs within RTD, and she's already helped make that happen. While accompanying Tobiassen on a tour of the RTD Telephone Information Center, Folska heard a manager say they were hiring. She asked if they'd consider hiring people with disabilities, and connected the center with the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps employers put in place adaptive technology that allows people with disabilities to do their jobs. RTD spokesman Scott Reed reports that the center has since hired two people.
In addition, Reed says RTD is looking into a suggestion by Folska to put an audible tone on its blue-light emergency phones so visually impaired people can find them.
Folska also has a plan to keep RTD strong for generations to come. She calls it "Grow the Rider," and it consists of giving a free annual RTD pass to every high-school freshman in Colorado and teaching them how to use the system.
Folska doesn't have many critics. Even her opponents recognize her vast experience with RTD. The one person who's aired doubts about her is Tom Grushka, a candidate running to represent District H. Grushka is also blind. He says he decided to run for RTD after meeting Folska and learning of her campaign. But Grushka worries that she'll be pressured to vote the way the boardmembers who support her want. "She's been an inspiration to me," he says, "but I don't think it's enough for [the board] to say, 'We've got Claudia. We can rest on our laurels.' I'm concerned about Claudia becoming part of an establishment that's not working."
It's true that Claudia enjoys overwhelming support on the board. At the beginning of a recent RTD meeting, held in the bowels of the district's headquarters on Blake Street in a windowless conference room fragrant with the smell of roasted potatoes from a board-members-only buffet, she's greeted exuberantly by Bill McMullen, the man who currently holds the seat she's running for. McMullen is term-limited.
"Hey!" he calls out. "How's my replacement?"
However, those who know Folska say she's a leader, not a follower. Accomplishing what she has takes a magnitude of stubbornness and trailblazing that would intimidate most people, they say. When Folska talks about herself, she often uses the word "independent."
"I have an independent mind and I'm curious about things," she says. "I'm not afraid of too many things." Including disagreement. But to prove that, she'll have to win.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Folska hitches a ride to the Colorado Secretary of State's office with Tobiassen, who is running unopposed for re-election. In an upstairs conference room, two election officials are preparing to determine in which order the RTD candidates will be listed on the ballot. Their tools include an empty red Costco-sized coffee container and several circular felt pads — the kind you put on the bottoms of chairs to keep them from scratching the floor — on which they've stuck pieces of paper printed with the candidates' names. Their plan is to literally pull names out of a can.
Folska and twelve other people, most of them candidates, have come to watch. The officials shake the can. "It's like Yahtzee or something," Folska whispers.
In a down-ballot race like RTD, most political observers agree it's an advantage to be listed first. Folska looks nervous as one official rolls up his sleeve and reaches into the can. "Jeff Bjorlin," the other calls out. Folska is picked third. It turns out that the candidates in her race will be listed in alphabetical order. "Alphabetical is good," she says afterward. "I'm fine with it."
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In the downstairs lobby, Tobiassen jokes with her. "They should've had the blind girl pick them," he says.
"I know!" Folska says. "I was going to suggest it, but then I thought, uhhh..."
"Especially if you came out on top."
"Well, how would I know?" she says. "Blind luck!"