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Through the eyes of Peter: How a blind San Luis Obispo man navigates a changing downtown

Posted at 6:05 PM, Oct 21, 2019

Taking a walk in downtown San Luis Obispo isn't something we give a lot of thought to but for someone with a disability, it's one obstacle after the next.

To view the world through the eyes of Peter Schustack, you would have to forget about sight entirely.

"I only have a little bit of sight on the corners of my eyes at this point," Peter said. "I've been visually impaired from one degree to another all my life."

His impairment doesn't stop him from traveling.

"I take pride in my independence," he said.

I caught Peter walking late one night. He was in the street, next to the uneven sidewalk on Toro Street, clacking his walking stick to keep his directional orientation.

He's been a San Luis Obispo resident since 1971. Peter was diagnosed with congenital macular degeneration at a young age. His brother, too.

But Peter isn't short of stories that include long travel -- other cities and states. He doesn't let his condition stop his movement.

The sounds of downtown, its traffic both vehicle and pedestrian, cue his navigation.

Through the streets of San Luis Obispo, a number of intersections are not Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, missing walking signals and sound alerts.

"I really won't know if nobody's on the street and there aren't too many cars on one side of the intersection or another, I just kinda take my chance," Peter said.

And it's led to some close calls.

"I've had other people tell me once and awhile that I almost got hit, but I wasn't aware of it."

Of the city's 2,436 intersection crossings, 22 percent do not having any ADA ramps. Half of all ramps do not meet ADA standards. In a survey done by county officials, 40 percent of the more than 1,000 curb ramps did not meet compliant standards.

For the city, updating streets to the Americans with Disabilities Act requires significant funding.

Each new project must fall in line with ADA standards.

"We also have a ongoing transition plan that we invest in upgrading curb ramps, sidewalks and other features as our funding allows," said Luke Schwartz, the city's interim transportation manager.

Funding can be a tight squeeze.

From the push buttons, to the raised padding, a corner can cost tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade.

The city says its committed to upgrading as funding is available. The city is putting forth nearly $1.9 million over the next two years in its budget for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

"And we also look for partnerships with development projects. If there is private development projects at the corner or near the vicinity of an intersection, we'll look for partnerships to try and upgrade that signal equipment," Schwartz said.

Raymond Castro is the president of People First of San Luis Obispo and an active participant at Pathpoint.

"It's one big family here," Castro said.

Castro, who is wheelchair bound, says another issue he finds is some intersections don't have visual timers, or lack enough time for those with disabilities to cross the street.

"Some of the crosswalks have them and some don't," Castro said. "So it makes it hard on us and other people to get across."

Though Castro says the city has made strides in making streets accessible.

When he moved to San Luis Obispo decades ago, Castro said curbs didn't have cuts for him to access sidewalks.

"You need money to do everything," he said. "And the city doesn't have enough money in its budget to take care of everything, so I know they are doing their best. Somehow, they need to allocate more money in the budget."

Meanwhile in downtown, armed with his cane and radio, Peter is headed to the post office on a beautiful autumn day.

In the city he loves, he says he's grateful for those who keep an eye on him and reach out to ask if he needs assistance.

"That's the way this place is, it's a community and we have people looking out for each other," Peter said. "I would say to appreciate what you have. All of us have challenges. Some are more visible than others."