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How I learned to use the city bus system with low vision

How I learned to use the city bus system in college and navigate to local areas within my community.

Like many students at my college, I had to learn to use the city bus system when I first started living on campus, because I didn’t bring a car with me to college. Unlike the other students, the reason I did not bring a car is because I don’t have a driver’s license due to low vision, and one of the primary ways I navigate on campus and in my community is with my blindness cane. I had to spend extra time learning how to use the city bus system and figure out where to find places I needed to go, where the bus stops were located, and how to avoid getting off at the wrong stop – or getting on the wrong bus. Here is how I learned to use the city bus system with low vision, based on my experiences living on a college campus in the DC Metro area.

Requesting orientation and mobility lessons

Many areas have Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialists that can help teach people with vision loss how to access the city bus system and practice getting to different areas. In most cases, O&M lessons are free and users do not need to use a blindness cane to qualify for services. I recommend reaching out to the state department for visual impairment or disability office for more details on how to request O&M lessons, or reach out directly to the area transportation authority as some places have their own O&M specialists. Due to issues with an O&M specialist shortage when I first started college years ago, I did not have access to O&M lessons until my second or third year of college, though I still found these lessons helpful as I was able to learn more about how to use the city bus system with low vision from someone who was an expert.

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Getting free/discounted bus fare with riders with disabilities

The city bus system has a partnership with my college to provide free bus fare for students regardless of if they have a disability or not. However, if I wasn’t a student, I would still qualify to receive free bus fare because I have a disability fare card through the DC Metro subway system. Many bus systems provide free or reduced bus fare for people with disabilities, though customers will often have to get a special card through the transportation office and bring proof of disability, i.e a doctor’s note or DMV handicap placard.

Using the city bus vs paratransit services

In college, I used the city bus system instead of paratransit/accessibility ride services because I feel comfortable navigating the bus system and typically did not travel alone. Since my disability has changed in the last few years and now makes traveling on the bus difficult/impossible, I would qualify for paratransit services through the city that provide curb-to-curb services at a discounted rate (about $3) to travel to various locations within my city like the mall, the hospital, my college, or other areas serviced by the traditional bus system.

To qualify for paratransit, users will need to have a physician certify that a person finds it difficult or impossible to use the city bus system and provide documentation on why, and the user will have to fill out a section of the form as well. Once approved, the transportation system will provide coupons or other vouchers for customers to use with taxi services or other ridesharing services at a discounted cost.

Learning the basics of where each bus goes

One of the first things I did when I first learned about the city bus system was figure out the general area for where each bus went, and when. I downloaded a print-friendly schedule that showed the various streets and pick up times for each area and looked for general landmark locations like the mall, the grocery store near campus and the library. These are all distinctive buildings that are easy for me to recognize so that I could use them as a reference when mapping out other areas. Knowing the names of each bus route and their general direction also helped me to track the bus using the Google Assistant app on my phone – I could ask when a specific bus would be stopping at my college and get an answer quickly.

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Mapping out popular destinations

Now that I knew which bus was which, I could start to map out and write down addresses for places that were near the various bus stops and start to plan routes more independently. Some of the places I mapped out include:

In addition to documenting which places I could access on the city bus system, I also checked to see which places could be accessed with the university-specific bus system, which is separate from the city bus system.

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Using visual assistance/interpreting apps

One of the main tools that helps me to access the city bus system with low vision is the use of visual assistance/interpreting apps like Be My Eyes and Aira. I prefer to use human assistance over AI apps in this case because I often need more detailed environmental descriptions than the AI apps can provide, and one of the benefits of Aira is that the agent can view more detailed information about the bus system, along with a map of the area. Some examples of tasks I might use a visual assistance app for include:

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Tracking bus routes on GPS apps

Once I am on the bus, I use the Google Maps app on my phone to track where the bus is going and view upcoming stops so that I know when I am close to my stop. Since talking to the bus driver is not an option because it can distract them, I input the address of wherever I am going and select the option to get directions for a bus route to the destination. Once I get close to the area, I pull the cord on the side of the bus to indicate that it’s time for me to get off.

Checking bus times with a phone call or mobile app

Many transportation systems provide a website or application for users who want to check bus times, though the accessibility features on these apps may vary depending on the transportation system- I have used the Moovit app with large print and it has worked well in my experience. If I am already standing at a bus stop or know the bus stop number, I will call the dedicated bus schedule phone number and type in the bus stop number, and an automated voice will announce when the bus is scheduled to arrive.

Other tips for learning to use the city bus system with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated October 2023; original post published July 2017.

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