A Conversation with: Claudia Folska (PhD ’12)

A Conversation with: Claudia Folska (PhD ’12)

October 11, 2021

In our Alumni Spotlights, we profile distinguished graduates of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). We sat down with Claudia Folska (PhD 2012), an intrepid trailblazer, to talk about her experience serving on the Board of Directors for the Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD), founding her company All Access Transit Solutions, and being the first blind woman elected to public office in Colorado.

Tell us about your background.

Well to start, I’ve been blind for most of my life. My family comes from Seattle and I spent most of my childhood in Santa Monica, CA. I went to school in California, receiving a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Southern California. During my studies at USC there was one class in particular that impacted me called “Social Cognition,” and I knew I wanted to work in that space

While I was living in Santa Monica in the 90’s I recognized that people with disabilities, and certainly myself, didn’t have access to recreation and team sports, so I started a nonprofit recreation group called EyeCycle. We took tandem bicycles and put a sighted person in the front with a blind person in the back, which was unheard of at the time. Eventually I reached out to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was the Chairman of the California Governor’s Council on Fitness & Sports, and I let him know that I didn’t think they were doing enough around recreation for people with disabilities. He ended up making me a special advisor.

Shortly after this I married a man from Pakistan and moved to Islamabad to live with him. After five years together in Pakistan we got divorced and I moved to Denver for its accessibility, good public transit, and high quality of life. I raised my daughter in Denver on my own. Around the time we relocated to Denver, I was interested in getting my PhD. An advisor of mine suggested that I look at the way blind people navigate the built environment, so I became interested in wayfinding and cognitive science. My studies eventually became about wayfinding in the absence of vision and the implications of neuroplasticity.

Tell us about your role on the Board of Directors with the Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) representing District E, which recently came to an end.

My life has always depended on good public transit. I moved to Denver primarily because of its public transit system and I actively use the RTD system all the time. At some point someone suggested I run for the open seat on RTD’s Board of Directors because I had a lot of personal lived experience with the transit system. I was and am very knowledgeable about it and thought that I might be able to add some value and contribute to how the RTD serves all people. I never planned to get involved in politics but in 2012 I became the first blind woman elected to public office in Colorado. I didn’t make a big deal out of it at the time, but looking back I see now how it’s so important to give people with disabilities a seat at the table. After all, when you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. 

People with disabilities need public transit and it needs to be affordable, safe, and accessible. This is a challenge faced not only by RTD but by every transit system in the country. There are over 2,000 public transit agencies in America and only three of them have elected governance, including RTD, so it’s a very special transit system with direct representation for the people.

What advice would you give to people interested in pursuing careers in public office?

Running for public office is not for the faint of heart. People running against you will say mean things. For instance I had someone tell me that if I were to win, it would only be because I got the sympathy vote. Having thick skin is a requirement. Campaigning is another skill you will certainly need, and then when you get elected there is a whole other set of skills you need to have, like being able to find common ground with people who have different agendas than yours.

Great advice. After RTD you launched a startup called All Access Transit Solutions. What can you tell us about that?

At All Access Transit Solutions, our mission is to build products, services, and careers by and for people with disabilities. One thing I’ve learned in my life experience, in academia, and in my work as an elected official, is that no technology has ever been built by and for people with disabilities. Everything is always retrofitted after it’s been built to try and accommodate people with disabilities, which often doesn’t cut it. Most large organizations like Google, Apple, Amazon don’t have people with disabilities at the table during the design process and this is a problem. 

Certainly, when it comes to transportation, whether it’s transit, taxis, or ride sharing apps, technology suited for people with disabilities is non-existent. At All Access Transit Solutions, we’re developing that technology by and for disabled people for the transportation piece, and we also hope to extend our work into outdoor and indoor navigation. We’re working with teams from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Carnegie Mellon to build that technology using robotics and artificial intelligence. Since I don’t have the technical background, it took me a while to find people who can do the work for me, and I now work side by side with the expert developers. These experts are people with disabilities (cognitive, sensory, and mobility). This part is important because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is something like 83%, even though they’re willing and able to work.

Are you currently working on any projects that you’re particularly excited about?

All Access Transit Solutions takes up a lot of my time and energy these days. Outside of that, I want to ride the perimeter of America on a bike. When I started my nonprofit called EyeCycle I became the first blind woman to ride a bicycle across America. In my Pakistan years I rode a tandem bike from Pakistan to China over the highest mountain pass in the world at 18,000-feet elevation called Khunjerab Pass. Right now I’ve got my ears open for a captain to cycle the perimeter of America with me (that’s 13,000 miles). That’s my next big adventure!

What initially drew you to CAP and the Urban Planning program in particular?

I think the ultimate answer to this question is that I have an innate curiosity within me, and that curiosity leads me down these paths. I was very interested in the study of wayfinding, and after taking some classes in cognitive science from the Institute of Cognitive Science at CU Boulder, I knew I wanted to blend the two disciplines somehow. I wound up receiving a dual PhD from CU Denver and CU Boulder—a PhD in Urban Planning from the CU Denver College of Architecture & Planning and a PhD in Cognitive Science from CU Boulder. I was going back and forth between the Denver campus and the Boulder campus, and thanks to RTD that was very seamless. And I loved my research—it was fascinating and original, which is the point of a PhD. I had the consistent support of my advisors, whom I adored and respected, and the classes offered on both campuses were challenging and thought-provoking. 

What is your favorite memory of CAP?

Defending my dissertation. It took me a long time since I was a dual candidate. It was incredible, very intense, and a huge accomplishment. Graduation was also pretty cool because I was the only one.

What was the most important thing you learned during your time at the CU Denver CAP?

What stuck with me from the PhD program was that you can imagine the impossible possible, and then do it. That has actually become a personal motto of mine. Of course, I faced moments when I was challenged and thought maybe this path wasn’t right for me. I learned to work through the challenges using the saying “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. Academia is a place where you’re safe to explore new frontiers and I had the consistent support from all of my professors and advisors to keep me going.

What are some of the biggest challenges in the urban planning field today? How might this change in the future?

One of the biggest challenges I see is in putting accessibility front and center in the literature, which it has not been to date. I’m really looking at how we’re designing cities or that matter, rural areas—with mobility as a service, and what that means for transportation, employment, health care, and housing. Designers and urban planners need to be putting people with disabilities at the table at the beginning of the design process, and not as an afterthought.

Looking back, what experiences at CAP and the Institute of Cognitive Science were the most helpful in shaping your career?

The people I worked with during my time at CAP and the Institute of Cognitive Science were all so helpful in shaping my career and my future. During my time at CAP, Mark Gelernter was the Dean of the school and he was so accessible. When you were walking down the halls he would greet you by name, and I was so impressed with that. I also had the pleasure of working with Tamara Sumner from the Institute of Cognitive Science, who was on my committee. In 2009 there was a conference being held in Poland with people from all over the world who did research on disabilities. I asked Tamara about the possibility of publishing a paper for the event and she told me: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” As simple as that is, it’s so helpful to have guidance like that when you’re in a vulnerable place. There was also Clayton Lewis from the Institute of Cognitive Science, who, anytime I’d bring an idea to him, would say sincerely “let’s do it.” Everyone was so supportive and nurturing. The unwavering support of the staff was where I got my motto: “imagine the impossible possible, and then do it.”

Can you name a particular urban planner or practice that influenced you?

Absolutely. It was Kevin Lynch from MIT and Reginald Golledge from USCB who was the foremost researcher on blind navigation. The idea for my dissertation came from Lynch’s book The Image of the City, particularly how people build cognitive maps of places and spaces, which I then did with the absence of vision. There was also Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Another one of my influences is outside of academics, and that is my daughter. Because frankly, what you and I do today matters for our children and even those who are not here yet.

Where do you go to feel inspired?

I love the ocean. Anytime I can get to an ocean—it can be anywhere in the world—that is where I feel my best. I think it’s almost like a genetic mutation in my body that draws me to the ocean’s vastness.

What was the last meal you cooked for yourself?

I cook for myself all of the time. I even had a cooking show on PBS years ago called “Cooking in the Dark.” My last cooked meal was probably a big salad. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I can’t get enough salad.

What are your typical Sundays like?

My Sundays are pretty much dedicated to personal care, which often takes the form of being quiet and listening to a book. I love watching CBS “This Morning” on Sundays and spending time with family and friends. When possible, I love to have family and friends over for a good meal in the early evening.

This interview was edited and condensed by Agency PR