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?