When Joann Becker walked to a bus stop this morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, she wasn’t just another commuter getting ready to board an MBTA bus.
She was making history.
Becker, who is blind, was the first person to officially use BlindWays – a free iPhone app developed by Perkins Solutions that helps people who are visually impaired locate bus stops.
Perkins School for the Blind President and CEO Dave Power announced the launch of BlindWays at a press conference Tuesday morning near Becker’s bus stop at the corner of Mt. Auburn Street and Russell Avenue.
Standing in front of an MBTA bus, Power said BlindWays would help make public transportation more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.
“We’re big believers in the power of technology to bring new solutions to old problems,” he said. “One of those problems is finding the bus stop. It’s a harder problem than you may think for people that are visually impaired. If you can’t get to the bus stop on time, you’re not going to get to work, get to school or even to the movies.”
The problem is that commercial GPS technology available on smartphones helps users navigate to within 30 feet of their destination. But “30 feet can be the difference between making or missing the bus,” Power said.
BlindWays, which is available for download from Apple’s App Store, solves that problem by using crowd-sourced clues that describe permanent landmarks near the bus stop. That allows a person who is blind to navigate within four or five feet – the average length of a white cane – of the bus stop.
For example, once Becker’s GPS got her within 30 feet of the bus stop, the app told her that she would pass a metal trash can, and immediately beyond it was the bus stop on a grassy surface. With those clues, Becker was able to use her white cane to navigate to the bus stop’s exact location.
“With this new mobile app, people who use or pass by MBTA bus stops every day can easily contribute clues that will empower fellow citizens who are blind to navigate MBTA bus routes more confidently,” said Bill Oates, vice president of Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins School for the Blind. “It’s a straightforward, reliable, cost-effective, scalable approach.”
Mass. Department of Transportation Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack said the BlindWays app would help the MBTA achieve its goal of making the system accessible to more riders with disabilities.
“We can pick (riders) up when they’re at the bus stop, and we can drop them off when they get to their destination,” she said. “But our drivers can’t know if someone who is standing 20 or 25 feet away is actually waiting for the bus or is just there for a completely different reason. So it’s very exciting to be part of this effort that will allow (more) riders to use the system.”
BlindWays is also useful for sighted bus passengers. It quickly locates the three closest bus stops – and provides predictive arrival data about any buses that are on the way. The location details are helpful for any user trying to find an unfamiliar bus stop.
All of Boston’s major television stations covered the BlindWays announcement, along with NECN, The Boston Globe, WBZ Radio, the State House News Service, the Watertown Tab, SearchCIO.com and more.
BlindWays was funded by a grant awarded in April through The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities. “Google.org recognized the power of this innovative, inclusive concept,” Oates said. “They supported our idea with a grant to jumpstart the app development.”
BlindWays was built by Raizlabs, a mobile software development company with offices in Boston and San Francisco. The app was engineered with accessibility in mind, using the iPhone’s built-in VoiceOver audio output to deliver clues to users.
While Perkins is introducing BlindWays first on Boston-area MBTA routes, it has the potential to be scaled up and adapted for bus systems anywhere in the world. Perkins Solutions is currently exploring options to expand BlindWays to a second city.