Blind sensitivity training exercise in Downtown Fresno

FRESNO, Calif.

On Tuesday, more than 20 employees from the Fresno Public Works Department got to do just that. They were blindfolded and made to walk around downtown as part of "blind sensitivity training exercise."

They were handed white canes, and paired with a co-worker. Their partner would be their guide to the street so they would not walk accidently walk into oncoming traffic and other dangers.

"(There are) overhanging branches and signs that you really wouldn't normally consider," Scott Raney of the Public Works Department said.

The training is a joint effort between the city and Valley Center for the Blind, a non-profit that offers both training and companionship for visually impaired or blind persons.

Ken Warkentin, the executive director of the center says the exercise is a way to let city workers experience what it's like being blind and walking through the city.

"They can be more aware when making decisions -- when they're making a decision as to how to fix something, prepare something or plan an intersection," Warkentin said. "So the blind and visually impaired people can more easily travel safely."

Making the streets safer for the blind community is personal for Warkentin. His daughter, Shaela, lost her vision in car accident three years ago.

"That's why I'm passionate about it," he said. "When I see my baby cross the street on her own, or ride the bus to Fresno state."

Warkentin says there are more than 20,000 blind people in the Fresno Area and though many don't walk the city alone, he hopes this experience will make the public works department think about those that do.

Many who took part in the exercise thought city walking was friendly enough for the blind, but admit there's room for improvement.

"The hardest part is the uncertainty when you do cross the street, because you can tell if there's a vehicle coming or not," said Ernie Garcia who is a design supervisor at the public works department.

He says voice automated crosswalks are handy, but say they are very pricey.

Advocates for the blind say smoothing out uneven walkways and adding tactile paving at sidewalk intersections to warn of traffic can go a long way.

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