Accessibility

School launches navigational app for bus riders with visual impairments

Posted on September 27, 2016

Images courtesy Perkins School for the Blind
Images courtesy Perkins School for the Blind
A free iPhone app designed to help people who are blind or visually impaired better access public transportation is now available. The mobile app, BlindWays, is the first-ever app launched by the Perkins School for the Blind. The micronavigation app provides user-submitted navigational clues to help bus riders with visual impairments locate outdoor bus stops more precisely.

Perkins Solutions conceived the app and sought seed funding from the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities initiative. Supported by cloud computing services, BlindWays has the potential to be scaled up and adapted for bus systems anywhere in the world. Perkins is introducing this solution first on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) routes.

“For people who are blind or visually impaired, finding the bus stop means more than just getting on the bus. It can mean getting to work or class on time,” said Dave Power, president/CEO of Perkins School for the Blind.

Current commercial GPS technology helps users navigate to within 30 feet of their destination. If a person is blind or has very low vision, being 30 feet away from a bus stop often means that the bus passes right by. BlindWays closes that “last 30 feet of frustration” with clues contributed by users that describe permanent landmarks near the bus stop — a tree, a fire hydrant, a mailbox. The crowdsourced clues bring users to within four to five feet (the average length of a white cane) of their bus stop so they can touch the signpost and verify they are in the right spot to be seen by a bus driver. Using BlindWays gives commuters who are visually impaired more freedom to travel independently.

“A bus system that works has to work for every single rider,” said Massachusetts Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. “BlindWays uniquely serves riders and at the same time engages people system-wide. It’s the kind of innovation that the Department of Transportation embraces and celebrates and we’re very proud that the MBTA will be the very first bus system where BlindWays is available.”

BlindWays’ success will depend on voluntarily contributed clues describing the roughly 8,000 bus stops in the MBTA network. With a few taps, anyone with an iPhone can use the app to easily select clues that guide users to a particular stop.

BlindWays was inspired by Joann Becker, a Perkins assistive technology specialist who is blind. At a Perkins Solutions brainstorming session to identify gaps in assistive technology, she expressed her own frustration. “I can’t find my bus stop,” she said, so busses often missed her.

Perkins Solutions responded by entering the mobile app market. They turned to members of the blind community for advice and input and then enlisted a team of expert designers and software developers from Raizlabs (Boston, Mass.) to build the app. BlindWays was tested by accessible technology users and experts — many of whom are visually impaired. With predictive arrival times and a view of the clues at each MBTA bus stop, the app also gives sighted users a new, robust navigation app to meet their commuting needs.

Some features include:
●      Accessibility first: BlindWays was built from the ground up with accessibility in mind, using VoiceOver audio output to help users navigate to bus stops.
●      Navigational tips: The app provides navigational clues based on permanent landmarks located near a bus stop and presented in a sequence aligned with a user’s direction of travel.
●      Arrival information: BlindWays offers predictive, location-based bus arrival information.
●      Favorites: Users can easily save their most-used bus routes for future reference.
BlindWays is available for download from the App Store. For more information on BlindWays, visit Perkins.org/BlindWays

Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829 as the first school of its kind in the US, is a multifaceted organization working around the world to prepare children and young adults who are blind with the education, confidence and skills they need to realize their full potential. Learn more at Perkins.org

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