For Bruce Howell public transportation is vitally important.
Living with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited disease of the retina, the 63-year-old said, “I’ve been losing vision all my life,” and became legally blind at age 37.
He depends on the bus to take him from his home in Needham to his job at Newton’s Carroll Center for the Blind on Centre Street. He was excited to learn about new technology from the MBTA that may make navigating local transportation routes and bus stops easier in the future.
“Independence is such an important concept for [people who are visually impaired],” Howell said. “The less we have to rely on somebody else to figure things out for us, the better it is for our self confidence. Since we can’t drive, that (public transportation) becomes a really critical option for us.”
Howell has already been using the BlindWays app, developed by Watertown’s Perkins School for the Blind, for about a year. The app helps users more precisely find their bus stops.
“Its purpose very appropriately addressed some of the biggest challenges for traveling when you’re blind, … finding a bus stop,” said Howell, who noted stops are not uniform and are frequently tricky to locate.
“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 can often mean missing the bus entirely,” according to the Perkins website. “BlindWays [gives users] … clues contributed by volunteers that describe permanent landmarks near the bus stop – a tree, a fire hydrant, a mailbox.”
Howell demonstrated how the app worked when he tried to find the Route 52 stop outside of the Carroll School. The app described the poles and hydrant that were on the sidewalk next to the stop, so he could tap them with his cane to know he was in the right spot.
Now the MBTA, in collaboration with Perkins, has found a way to improve this technology even more by using Bluetooth “beacons” that cost only $10 each, according to Joe Pesaturo, director of communications at the MBTA. As of now the beacons are only installed at bus stop along Routes 70 (Cambridge to Waltham) and 71 (Cambridge to Watertown).
“These beacons transmit a signal to BlindWays users, translating into voice-over narration and cell phone vibrations with vibrations becoming more intense as a user approaches the beacon located at the bus stop,” according to Perkins.
Bruce Howell, who is the accessibility services manager at the Carroll School, said before he installed the BlindWays app on his phone, he “always tended to go to the same bus stop because that’s the one I know. Now I feel much more confident in my ability to find another bus stop. It’s given me a sense of freedom.”
In an emailed response, Pesaturo said he did not know when the beacons would be installed in Newton, specifically at the Route 52 bus stops outside of the Carroll School.
“The sooner, the better,” said Howell.