Meet Claudia Folska: An innovator and chief champion for the disabled


For the past several weeks, I have paused several times a day to try to experience what it’s like to be blind. Claudia Folksa has that kind of effect on you. More about her in a bit.

Imagine being blind and you’re in an unfamiliar space — like a supermarket or a concert venue hoping to listen to your favorite band. You don’t know where the exits are, or the bathroom or the section your seats are in. Now put yourself in a wheelchair. The turn to get into the bathroom stalls has a right and then a sharp left. When I pretend I’m blind, it’s frightening. When I compound that with being in a wheelchair, I’m hopeless that anyone cares. That’s saying something as a Black man navigating unfamiliar spaces for a lifetime.

Being disabled in America is more difficult and perilous than I realized. As a society, we can do better.

I recently had lunch with Claudia. A good friend told me she was fascinating and unforgettable, and that our company might be of value to hers. In no time at all, I was compelled to help.

She asks me if I know anyone who is disabled. I quickly say no. Then picking through my salad, I remember my boss of 11 years who has MS and has been in a wheelchair for a decade. There was a time he threw a celebration for me in Washington D.C. after I won a big editor award at The Denver Post. And in the capital city where the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, he could not gain access to the restaurant he had reserved for my party.

He called as I was on my way over to the venue and explained that he could not get in — not through the back, the front, or the service entrance. Maybe we should cancel the party. No, I said, hang tight and I’ll be there in a few minutes. We’ll figure it out, but we are not canceling.

Upon arrival, we confirmed that the building was not accessible.There was no way in. We decided to pick him up and carry him to a table and lifted his heavy wheelchair into the restaurant so we could all celebrate together.

I reflect on that experience and share it with Claudia. After all these years, in the very city where the ADA was enacted, the disabled too often remain an afterthought. That shouldn’t be. Thirty-four years after the ADA , there is still much work to be done to fully integrate the 42.5 million Americans with disabilities into the mainstream.

Claudia helped me to see all of this in a single meeting. Quite simply, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Who is Claudia Folska? Despite living with blindness, there is hardly a limit to her achievements and contribution. A dual PhD holder in cognitive science and architectural planning, she is an expert in wayfinding. Her ability to envision and implement solutions aimed at solving challenges faced by the disabled is remarkable. She founded All-Access Transit Solutions, where she teamed up with developers at Carnegie Mellon University to create an app that maps public spaces in real time to help people with disabilities navigate the world independently.

She pushes past her disability and demands that others do as well.

As we discuss how dismissed the disabled feel, she recounts a dispiriting encounter and snaps: “Don’t she me.” She quickly explains the hurtful habit of waitstaff — and even medical personnel — looking past her to ask her abled companions what “she” wants to order or is suffering from. As if Claudia the person is not even there.

That didn’t happen at our lunch, but nonetheless her advocacy on behalf of the disabled is intoxicating.

She explained that things are still tough for the disabled. The world is not designed for people with disabilities to be in it. No ramps, narrow hallways, cramped elevators, and forget bathroom accessibility. Now in some cities, design trends are even removing curbs and other features that the disabled community rely upon.

Wouldn’t it be great if the disabled could navigate public spaces the way Google helps us navigate our nation’s byways, neighborhoods and even buildings? Technology can guide us to any location we want or help us select the seat we want in an arena. It’s made our lives simpler to navigate. Claudia calls out the inequity for people like her.

That’s why our company partnered to help her share her expertise on these issues with a broader audience. You’ll be hearing more from Claudia and we hope you learn from her and are inspired to join the fight for equality for the disabled.