Sunday, May 31, 2009

Crossing difficult for visually impaired pedestrians

THE PROBLEM: Few pedestrian signals allow people crossing a street to dawdle. The symbol of a walking person illuminates for just seconds before the orange, upraised hand flashes, warning others not to leave the curb.

At an intersection in Spring Valley, Elsie Luranc knows two people who have trouble moving quickly enough.

One is a woman who uses a wheelchair, and the other is a blind man. They both traverse the T intersection at Broadway, Spring Street and Campo Road almost daily, but Luranc said the timing of the signal keeps them apprehensive. With five lanes of traffic to cross, a longer interval would make the busy street feel safer, she said.

Luranc wasn't sure whom to ask about the possibility of adjusting the signal.

STATUS: Just Fix It checked and found the walk signal goes for about six seconds before flashing orange. The flashing-orange cycle lasted about 20 seconds more. Pedestrians had just a few more seconds before lights turned green in the opposite direction, allowing cross-traffic through, so total crossing time was 30 or 31 seconds.

Michael Robinson, deputy director of the county transportation division, said timing of the Spring Street signal is controlled by Caltrans because of its proximity to ramps serving state Routes 94 and 125. Signals typically give pedestrians about one second per four feet, Robinson said, and the timing at Spring sounded about right to him.

Robinson noted a delay of even a few seconds could cause backups for vehicles using the two freeways, but he has put Luranc in touch with a traffic signal program coordinator who will investigate the matter further, possibly installing a chirping signal to guide visually impaired pedestrians.

WHO'S RESPONSIBLE: Michael Robinson, who can be reached at , or (858) 874-4040 for public road issues in unincorporated portions of San Diego County.

NEED A PROBLEM SOLVED: Is there a problem that government hasn't taken care of despite your complaints? Whether it's a sidewalk obstruction or vast pothole anywhere in San Diego County, Just Fix It might be able to help.

Complaint forms are at, or call (800) 820-8714.

Jeff Ristine: (800) 820-8714;

Event set up for the visually impaired

The fifth annual Woof to Woof is fast approaching and organizers are seeking more vendors, as well as Lassie look-alikes, for the June 6 event.

"We will have John Provost, the actor, director and author who most people know as Timmy' for the show Lassie," said Nels Westman, event organizer. "He will judge the Lassie look-alike contest."

Admission, parking and entry into various dog-centric events, such as the Lassie look-alike contest, are free. The event aims to raise money for the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Santa Cruz, Westman said.

There also will be demonstrations by the Canine Companions for Independence, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Dogs4Diabetes and more, said Westman. The assistant dog shows are new to the five-year-old event.

"Money for the center will be raised from revenues from the retail sales and vendor space rentals, as well as a raffle, silent auction, food concessions and corporate sponsors," Westman said. "We'll also have donation boxes all around for people to drop money in."

So far, the event has about 40 dog-specific vendors, including groomers, the SPCA, and others who seek to show off their services and wares, Westman said.

Located on Laurel Street, Vista Center plans to use the funds to serve the more than 1,900 clients that seek assistance annually.

"Most of our services are done on sliding scale fee because Medicare and Medi-Cal don't pay for exams and optical aids," said Briya Serrano, program assistant.

For 22 years, the center has been providing clients with vision exams and the skills they need to function at home and in public, Serrano said.

"We help people sort out their laundry, how to set up a kitchen so they can cook their meals and how to use canes because there's a different method for indoors and outdoors," she added.

Sounds give vision to visually impaired artist

Ashley Spurgeon is one of several blind participants who collaborated with Rich Curtis on an award-winning painting.

The work, "Sight Unseen," brought together blind residents across the state who, under Curtis' direction, painted white canvases with thick black paint that becomes raised when dry.

The neophyte artists produced their work in response to five pieces of music that ranged from Blue Man percussion to upright bass solos to Tuvan throat singing.

The resultant work of 20 canvases was meant to be not only seen, but felt by the blind and sighted.

For the work, Curtis won the Helen Keller International Prize, named after the deaf and blind Tuscumbia woman who was born in 1880 and became a world-recognized advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

The competition, held in Glasgow, Scotland, attracted 200 artists worldwide. In abstentia, Curtis accepted the award along with a $2,224.17 prize and trophy.

The entire collection, including more than 50 drawings, will be on exhibit at the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art in Florence on June 22-28 during the Helen Keller Festival.

Four judges unanimously chose Curtis' work.

"It was vibrant and interesting, worked on different levels for sighted and non-sighted audiences and had an oomph about it we all loved," stated Pauline McLean, a competition judge. "With a lovely twist, the winner turned out to be from Helen Keller's home town."

Helen Keller, with her teacher and companion Anne Sullivan, visited Scotland in 1933 as part of a worldwide awareness tour. The visit helped to plant the seed for Sense Scotland, an advocacy and charitable organization started by parents of deaf/blind children. The group sponsored the competition.

During Keller's Glasgow visit, she established a trust fund for other deaf/blind people, a trust taken over by Sense Scotland in 1989 that transformed into an international essay competition, then a biennial art competition open to professional and amateur artists.

The project started about a year ago when Curtis contacted the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. His original idea was to shadow someone visually impaired to navigate through their day.

"That would be interesting," Spurgeon said.

Because of feasibility problems, Curtis changed the project into how sound plays a role in how we navigate the world and the body's response to sound.

"I wanted to know what part vision played in the interpretation of sound," Curtis said.

Spurgeon was born four months prematurely and developed retinopathy of prematurity because incubator oxygen damaged her retinas.

Her parents have told her there are baby pictures of her focusing on objects.

"I don't remember seeing, which is probably better for me -- I'd rather not know what I'm missing out on," she said with her guide dog, Ireland, at her side.

Most of the blind artists who collaborated with Curtis were found with the assistance of Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind sites, including Talladega, Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham.

Curtis found Spurgeon through the University of North Alabama's development services office.

Spurgeon moved from Washington state with her husband in 2007 and is a junior at UNA studying elementary education.

As she sat on the veranda in front of the UNA student center, a drum circle's steady rhythm acted as a sonic backdrop.

When asked about her participation in the art, Spurgeon said, "I don't know if it means anything -- it was fun."

She mainly thought about "how weird the music was most of the time."

She uses echolocation -- sounds as a way to orient herself, such as the distant sound of water from UNA's main fountain.

"If I walk by a tree, I hear the tree," she said. "If there's too much sound, I get really disoriented."

The intersection of visual art and blindness isn't unprecedented. Spurgeon recalled tactile picture books for the blind when she grew up. The books had raised line drawings and thick plastic shapes.

During a visit to London, Spurgeon got to touch the wax sculptures at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Sighted visitors are not allowed to touch the figures.

In the future, Curtis said he hopes to find participants on a national scale.

Plus, "I would like to revisit many of the participants to see if they got anything out of it," Curtis said.