Helen Fukuhara sits quietly among her peers in Officer Greg Marsh’s class. Officer Marsh is known as ‘Greg’ on Mondays when he volunteers as a history teacher in Los Angeles. Fukuhara has travelled one hour from Whittier, California for her American History class and knows it’s important not to be late. Most students in class are similar to Helen in three ways, first they are blind, second many are past the age of 60, and third they are terrified of crossing any street in L.A. because they do not feel safe.
Fukuhara lost the ability to see at five months old. She was born prematurely to Japanese parents who were interned at Manzanar during World War Two, blindness was a side effect of her early arrival. Fukuhara never knew life in the camp but rather grew up in Long Island, New York.
The New York native relies on ‘Access’ or a car service for the visually impaired, or public transportation to travel two to three hours a day to attend classes at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, committee meetings for the blind, and a long commute home.
Fukuhara says she can’t rely on the City of Los Angeles because, “they will do more for people in wheelchairs than for people who are blind.”
Fukuhara is not only one who is angry at the city.
Franklyn Burns is also a student at the institute. Burns lost 80 percent of his sight seven years ago due to blood thinners. Burns says the city has a simple reason for not helping the blind.
“Because of money! They want to do everything, they they want to fulfill their promises as cheaply as they possibly can,” said Burns.
The City of Los Angeles does not call their expenses cheap, when it comes to pedestrian safety. In fact, the city will spend $50 million dollars upgrading 20,000 crosswalks across L.A. The crosswalks will feature zebra-like stripes in an attempt to make crosswalks more visible to drivers. According to the city, the project’s funding will come from Measure R’s half-cent sales tax.
The city’s latest project however does not take into account Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) that alert the visually impaired through sounds, when it is safe to cross the street.
Valerie Watson is the Assistant Pedestrian Coordinator to the City of Los Angeles and works for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). Watson co-sponsored the city’s plan to upgrade crosswalks in the hopes of increasing pedestrian safety. Watson says the APS devices are currently for the intersections with the highest needs.
“We do have that tool in our toolbox now, and so whether or not it becomes a city standard to have that at every crosswalk, I can’t speak to that but, um we absolutely have the right mechanisms in place so that if there is a need then we can put that there,” said Watson.
Watson’s words are not enough for Odet Nasseri who lost her sight when C-section caused a blood infection that in turn claimed her eyesight. Nasseri is a volunteer instructor at the Braille Institute and asks the city to bear one thought in mind.
“Just think we are a human and we want to live like them. Like we cannot drive, at least cross the street, that’s the only thing they can do for us,” pleads Nasseri.
Nasseri like Fukuhara and Burns will have to wait until the City’s next pedestrian advisory committee meeting in November to hear if the signals will be a part of future city plans. Until that time all three will have to rely on others to see.