Blind Santa Rosa wheelchair user Ken Rossi helps find the sidewalk obstacles we don't see

For somebody like Ken Rossi, it’s heart-pounding simply to cross a street.|

City traffic is fairly busy today.

You’re on the sidewalk and approach an intersection. As you push the crosswalk button, car after car pulls right turns across your intended path.

The pedestrian signal flashes WALK and though you legally have the right of way, you look left once, twice, to make certain no vehicles bear down on you. Then you step into the crosswalk.

Now, rewind and imagine doing this blind, and in a wheelchair.

For somebody like Ken Rossi, it’s heart-pounding simply to cross a street. These days, electric cars make so little noise that the lifelong Santa Rosan can’t hear them approach. Unable to make eye contact, he has no idea if the driver coming his way is looking at him or is even aware of his presence in or at the threshold of a crosswalk.

“There’s a lot of distractions now, with cellphones and text messages,” said Rossi, a 1985 Piner High grad who lost his vision to glaucoma and his ability to walk to a sensory motor disorder.

Beyond the crosswalk anxiety familiar to him and others with sight, hearing and mobility impairment are physical obstacles that go utterly unnoticed by most people able to see, hear and walk. Common aspects of curbs and ramps can make a safe crossing difficult, unsafe or even impossible for individuals who live with disabilities.

“This is a real bad one here,” Rossi, 51, pointed out one day last week at a residential corner off of Yulupa and Mayette avenues.

His manual wheelchair was at the base of a steep sidewalk ramp. Though his arms are strong from all the wheeling he does, he struggled to push himself and his chair up the old, no longer legally conforming corner ramp.

Listening to him, and taking note, were three Santa Rosa City Hall officials: Rob Sprinkle, the deputy director of traffic engineering; Supervising Traffic Engineer Massoud Saberian and Chris Jeffrey from the risk management office.

They and Rossi and two other Santa Rosans who are blind were there for a Walkabout, a survey tour scheduled to allow people with disabilities to point out to city officials the problems they encounter when attempting to cross at various intersections.

This particular day, the city officials’ guides included 31-year-old Lauren Brennan, who walks with a white cane, and Larry Hall, who’s 65, unable to see or walk and a representative of the Bay Area chapter of the California Council of the Blind.

In arranging the several-times-a-year Walkabouts, they and Rossi and other visually impaired people carry on the work of a compassionate powerhouse named Beryl Brown.

A stalwart of the Earle Baum Center of the Blind and the California Council of the Blind, Brown initiated the Walkabouts more than a decade ago as a means of improving crosswalk safety for the visually impaired. She led the Walkabouts until shortly before her death at 74 in 2012.

At the outing in east Santa Rosa the other day, Rossi pointed out to city officials that there are no sidewalk ramps at several corners in his neighborhood, and where there are ramps, most of them are so steep that they’re difficult to ascend.

If the city is able to come in and do some sidewalk ramp work, asked Sprinkle, would Rossi prefer that the priority be to flatten out the existing ramps or create new ones where none currently exist?

Rossi replied that making the too-steep ramps more accessible should come first, because the corners that have no ramps generally see so little traffic that he and other people in wheelchairs can safely cross by rolling down driveway cuts and into the street.

Sprinkle said he will investigate whether there is water or sewer work that’s scheduled for that neighborhood near Yulupa and Mayette that could include easing the slope of the sidewalk ramps.

The engineer also told Rossi, Hall and Brennan he would have a crew cut back the tall weeds that brush them as they move along a pedestrian walkway on Franquette Avenue.

Indeed, the next day a city crew arrived and cut the weeds.

In this and other Walkabouts, Rossi pointed out to Sprinkle and other city officials conditions that might seem minor to most people but can be critical to someone in a wheelchair.

Not uncommon are lips of pavement at the base of a corner ramp. That lip might trip someone who walks up or down the ramp, and it can stop dead the front wheels of a wheelchair.

Walkabouts throughout Santa Rosa and in Sebastopol and Petaluma have revealed audible crosswalk signals that don’t work and WALK signals that don’t stay on long enough for a person with disabilities to cross before it switches to DON’T WALK.

The surveys also have revealed to city officials any number of other safety and accessibility impediments that wouldn’t be obvious to most people able to see, hear and walk.

“There’s a lot that we take for granted,” said Saberian, the supervising traffic engineer. Risk management official Jeffrey said the Walkabouts “help us understand where the issues are.”

Rossi and other Walkabout hosts know the city is unlikely to send out a crew the next day to make all of the accessibility upgrades that a surveyed intersection needs, though that has happened.

Curb and crosswalk work typically is costly, and public officials have to deal with budgets and priorities.

Still, Rossi said he is happy with how responsive Santa Rosa has been to the safety and mobility issues revealed in the Walkabouts.

“They’re doing the best they can,” he said, adding that he’s grateful to the City Council’s Julie Combs, who often participates in the sidewalk tours.

“She’s been very helpful,” he said.

Rossi said he values the Walkabouts “because I have a passion for pedestrian safety.” That passion intensified when he was stuck by a van and nearly killed as he wheeled himself within a crosswalk on Montgomery Drive in 2006.

He pleads for drivers to be especially aware of the danger they pose to pedestrians and users of wheelchairs when they come to an intersection and slide into a right turn.

“They really have to look first to see if anyone’s in the crosswalk,” Rossi said. “If there is, they have to stop before the line, not in the crosswalk.”

For people like him, this isn’t mere crosswalk safety. It’s life or death.

Chris Smith is at (707) ?521-5211 and chris.smith?

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