Pablo Manzo stood at a crosswalk on Slauson Avenue listening for the traffic flow to change directions. But the fine sense of hearing that he uses to determine when to cross the street was thrown off by the afternoon wind.
Having only partial vision, Manzo, 21, cautiously waited through four signal changes before a noisy car engine assured him that he could safely cross.
Although he has been legally blind his whole life, Manzo is just learning the skills to move independently throughout the city. He and 19 other adults, most of whom are newly impaired, are part of a live-in program at the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Windsor Hills that teaches them everything from boiling water to walking around the mall to using the Internet.
Margaret Williams, 85, of Kern County recently lost her sight and began the program last week.
"I came down here to be self-sufficient," she said. "It's very hard to depend on other people for everything you need. I want to be able to use my computer again, and I'm learning Braille."
Students of all ages, backgrounds and degrees of visual impairment converge on the program's eight-acre campus to live in dorms and get customized instruction.
For many, such as Manzo, getting around town is the biggest obstacle. Last week, with an instructor following close behind, Manzo was assigned to walk to a bus stop and ride to the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City.
He boarded a bus at Slauson and Alviso avenues and asked the driver to let him know when they reached his stop. On two recent occasions, drivers had forgotten to call out Manzo's street, forcing him to walk home on unfamiliar routes.
"I always try to be nice to those bus drivers," he said. "Those are the guys that are going to help you."
Manzo's instructor, Dianne Ketts, usually sits several seats back and tries to let her students deal with situations on their own.
"I wouldn't call out and say, 'Pablo, we've got to stop here,' " she said. Instead, she lets him go past the stop and, if necessary, helps him figure out how to get back.
Ketts teaches the students to use the warmth of the sun to get a sense of direction. But Manzo still loses his bearings in unfamiliar areas.
On his travels, potential dangers loom that a sighted person would never expect--such as palm trees. Wind on palm fronds can create such a din that blind people are not able to hear traffic, Ketts said.
MTA buses, idling to let passengers out at an intersection, can deceive a blind person into thinking all traffic has stopped.
Instructors at the Davidson Program for Independence, as it is called, teach participants the techniques and problem-solving skills needed to deal with a virtually limitless number of situations.
The foundation operates its instructional activities with state grants and private donations, said director Bob Ralls. The nonprofit organization offers six programs, mostly to children with multiple disabilities.
Last year, said a foundation administrator, 38 people graduated from the adult program, which has a waiting list of six months to a year. Since the program began in 1970, 4,200 people have been served, said Dena Schulman, spokeswoman for the foundation.
Funding cutbacks have reduced the number of people once served.
Candidates for the program are recommended by state Department of Rehabilitation counselors.
"The people I see who have a potential of going back to work I will send to such a program," said Mostafa Nasser-Ara, a counselor at the department. "They can get out quicker and go into vocational training and job placement."
Frida Shmidt, 63, teaches students to cook, clean, do laundry, balance a checkbook, manage their finances, dress themselves and match their clothes.
"The atmosphere here is not a classroom atmosphere," she said. "I see it as the sharing of experience. I share what I know. They share what they know."
Shmidt teaches students to rely on senses other than vision. They learn to listen for the water to boil. They put Braille tags on their clothes to determine which pieces match. One problem she faces is getting men enthusiastic about home economics. "We have cases when someone comes to the program and has a macho image," she said. "You know: 'I'm a man, I never did it, I'm never going to do it.' This is really hard to break."
As she spoke, though, Antonio Gutierrez, a hefty former concrete worker in baggy shorts and black work boots, happily peeled carrots.
Most students seemed to be content with the program. But some said they had difficulties adjusting to a regimented campus life.
Student Kelly Hill, 29, spends much of his time traversing the Internet with a program that reads aloud the on-screen text.
He looks forward to returning home with new skills and a job. "The first thing I'm going to do is some kind of customer service over the phone," Hill said. "I have a 3-year-old daughter, and I want to get working right away."