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RTD director leads Girl Scouts on blindfolded tour of Union Station

Getting around Denver during a weekday morning or evening commute can be daunting for anyone trying to make it to the office, to a college class or to an appointment on time.

Now, imagine doing so without the benefit of sight or sound or in a wheelchair, all while negotiating ramps, curbs, elevators and other infrastructure, reaching for handrails, avoiding barriers and listening for warning bells, whistles and other sounds—sometimes all at once.

For an enterprising group of 45 Colorado Girl Scouts from Troop 3955, merely imagining the challenges of using public transit services as a person with disabilities wasn’t enough. Instead, they chose to go through the experience firsthand by touring Union Station in blindfolds.

The blindfolded tour

“It’s so weird! I don’t know where I’m going!” a red-haired Girl Scout in a green blindfold told NBC affiliate KUSA-TV as companions led her through historic Union Station, located at the heart of the RTD transit system in lower downtown Denver.

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RTD Board Director Claudia Folska leads Girl Scouts on blindfolded tour of Union Station

“It would be hard traveling by yourself,” another said in wonder after removing her blindfold to talk about the experience.

Dr. Claudia Folska, an RTD board director since 2013, led the Oct. 3 “blind tour” as the representative of District E, which covers portions of Aurora, Centennial, Denver, Greenwood Village and unincorporated Arapahoe County.

Folska, who holds degrees in architecture and design and cognitive science, began losing her sight when she was 5 years old and remains committed to promoting greater awareness of accessibility for everyone, especially as it relates to public transportation.

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Claudia Folska & Girl Scouts. Photo: Tom Tobiassen

“My hope is that we can create environments that are legible to people without vision,” she told KUSA-TV in an interview during the Union Station tour.

The annual tour is one of many public outreach strategies RTD staff and senior leadership employ to raise awareness about the agency’s efforts to comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The landmark ADA marked its 25th anniversary in July, and RTD and several regional partners celebrated the milestone at Civic Center Park.

Coming soon: 5 new transit lines

Interest in public transit is reaching a critical mass in the Denver area largely because RTD will open five new transit lines next year, including the University of Colorado A Line to Denver International Airport, the B Line to Westminster, the G Line to Wheat Ridge and Arvada, the R Line to Aurora, and the Flatiron Flyer bus rapid transit service along U.S. 36.

All of these lines will depart from Denver Union Station to outlying destinations, vastly improving mobility and accessibility across the region. Three of the rail lines—the CU A Line and the B and G lines—will be commuter rail lines, the first in Colorado history. The rail technology offers larger trains designed to travel longer distances at higher speeds with the added benefit of providing level boarding for all passengers at train stations. That means people with disabilities will be able to board the trains alongside other passengers.

Accessibility awareness

With all of these grand openings, 2016 will be historic for RTD, and spreading the word about accessibility and safety in and around transit stations and along rail lines will become increasingly important for RTD board directors and employees.

RTD has launched a major internal communication campaign to develop RTD employee ambassadors who will descend on the region during grand openings, public meetings and other events to engage, inform and educate the public about these and other issues.

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RTD ADA Manager Ed Neuberg at Auraria Campus

An important aspect of this public information campaign will be opportunities to partner with nonprofits, trade associations, stakeholders and other public agencies.

Recently, RTD ADA Manager Ed Neuberg staffed a booth at the annual Accessibility Awareness Festival on the Auraria Campus, where he talked to students, faculty and others about the agency’s accessibility policies, the five new transit lines and other initiatives.

This year’s blindfolded Union Station tour was co-sponsored by the Women in Transportation Seminar (WTS) as a way of promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and encouraging girls to be the industry leaders and technology creators of the future.

Folska has led blindfolded transit tours for the past few years. But this year’s group of Girl Scouts was the largest by far, she said. Folska wore her own “vintage” Girl Scout sash during the tour. She says she was a Girl Scout in Los Angeles, Troop 1212, 41 years ago.

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Girl Scouts pose for a photo inside Union Station. Photo credit: Tom Tobiassen

Folska told the Girl Scouts to keep their elbows “firm, solid and secure” as their sighted companions helped them get around. Above all else, she added, communication is very important while participating in this kind of trust-based exercise.

'See' the challenges

“Ironically, it takes someone to be blindfolded to see the challenges” faced by blind people and others living with disabilities, she said.

The Girl Scouts with the gumption to take the blindfolded tour negotiated stairways and escalators and made their way around sandwich board signs as they listened for trains and mall shuttles amid the cacophony of human voices all around them.

“I feel like I’m going diagonal,” one blindfolded scout told a friend. “No, you’re not. We’re walking forward,” the friend replied confidently.

It’s the kind of trust and firsthand knowledge that Folska, the girls’ troop leaders, parents and WTS mentors had hoped to inspire.