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Berkeley is Livable City for the Blind

Friday July 11, 2003

The television cameras were rolling, a photographer snapped away and all eyes were on Anthony Candela. But Candela, speaking before City Council Tuesday night, didn’t see any of it. 

Candela, a national program associate for the American Foundation for the Blind, is himself blind. But that didn’t stop him from making his way to the podium Tuesday night, as the news cameras rolled, to officially proclaim Berkeley the second most “livable” city in the nation for the blind and visually-impaired. 

Candela listed a number of reasons for the honor— jobs for the blind are plentiful, public transportation and post offices are accessible, walking is safe and there are a host of recreation opportunities for those who can’t see. 

But Candela, who has lived in Berkeley for three-and-a-half years, said the city’s culture —its acceptance of the blind and disabled in general— is the most important benefit. 

“The sense of feeling an integrated part of Berkeley, a feeling of normalcy,” he said. “The openness and welcome feeling ranked very highly.” 

The foundation, based in New York City, originally announced the country’s six most livable communities in mid-April and has been staging events around the country to draw attention to the issue. 

The media blitz has paid dividends. A press conference hailing New York City as the fourth most livable city in the nation for the blind made its way into the pages of the July 7 edition of the New Yorker magazine. 

The foundation, established in 1921, selected the winners based on a set of 250 surveys filled out by blind and visually-impaired citizens across the country, laying out the factors that made a city “livable” and nominating municipalities for the honor. 

A panel of 17 experts, after culling through the surveys, named Charlotte, NC the top city, followed by Berkeley, then Kalamazoo, MI, New York City and Lacrosse, WI and Louisville, KY, tied for fifth place. 

“I believe the only difference between Berkeley and Charlotte that mattered was cost of living. Members of City Council, Mayor [Tom] Bates, I hope you will do something to get Berkeley to number one,” said Candela, to laughs. 

“We’re really, really honored that you have bestowed this award on us,” said Bates, accepting a plaque from Candela. “The people here care.” 

The city has a history of disability activism. Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living, established in 1972, was the first such center in the world — providing services and advocacy for the disabled, spinning off a number of other local organizations and helping mold new attitudes toward the disabled among the general public. 

The city has continued to make strides in recent years. After talks with local advocates for the blind, five local banks, beginning in the fall of 1999, installed the nation’s first talking automated teller machines, with earpiece hook-ups for privacy, along Shattuck Avenue. 

There are now 8,000 such machines around the country and thousands more on the way, according to attorney Linda Dardarian of the Oakland firm of Goldstein Demchak Baller Borgen & Dardarian, which helped negotiate the Shattuck Avenue changes. 

But the city is not perfect. Candela said Berkeley needs to do a better job of maintaining sidewalks and cutting back foliage that intrude on walkways. 

Still, Laura Oftedahl, a blind consultant who moved to Berkeley three years ago, praised the city Tuesday night for its talking voting machines and accessible banking and said she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. 

“This is the first place where I’ve walked into a grocery store and they come up to me and offer help,” she said. “I feel good about myself living in Berkeley...I don’t have to explain myself.”