Health & wellness

New app will help blind navigate MBTA stations

An indoor navigation system will open new doors for the visually impaired

Jonathan Gale, 59, who has been blind since birth, has been commuting for years and said using the app is empowering.
Jonathan Gale, 59, who has been blind since birth, has been commuting for years and said using the app is empowering.

Edward Tabor tapped his white cane in front of him as he recently made his way through Park Street Station, then quietly asked a woman he didn’t know for help.

After the stranger led him a few steps toward the turnstiles, Tabor, 23, told an MBTA employee where he wanted to go. Tabor then took the employee’s elbow as the man led him toward his destination, descending three flights of stairs toward the Alewife-bound Red Line train.

“Where do you want to end up? Front of the train? Back of the train?” the MBTA employee asked.

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After decades of commuting, Jonathan Gale, 59, said he knows nearly every station on the MBTA’s subway lines.

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But on a recent afternoon, Gale, who has been blind since birth, also needed help. He asked a stranger to point him in the right direction to his Green Line train.

This is what taking the subway is like for riders who are blind.

A new application being developed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is meant to help visually impaired people navigate T stations on their own.

The MBTA has helped fund the creation of PERCEPT — an indoor navigation system that one day will allow users to make their way through a T station by listening to step-by-step directions on their smartphones, which lead them to electronic sensors or “tags” throughout the building.

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Testing of the system is ongoing, but it is hoped that the application could be ready for use in the Arlington Station in early 2015. Once approved by the MBTA, the app would be free to users.

For people like Tabor, one of five people who has helped test the application, it could mean more independence.

“It really is all about being able to go on your own and feel comfortable doing something for the first time, which is difficult to come by if you’re visually impaired,” Tabor said.

In 2004, Aura Ganz, a professor at UMass Amherst, began developing the technology to help the visually impaired navigate inside unfamiliar buildings.

Larry Haile, a former accessibility coordinator for the MBTA, met Ganz at a conference and convinced MassDOT to partner with her to develop indoor navigation for the T. Haile’s efforts led to a two-year, $238,321 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to fund the pilot at the Arlington station.

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“Generally, in America, there’s very little done to help people with visual impairments at subway stations,” said Haile, who is blind.

About 30,000 people across the state are registered as legally blind, according to the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Those registered with the commission can get a free Charlie Card for the MBTA, and are allowed to bring a friend or mobility instructor for help.

But even with such accommodations, Haile said few blind people use the T.

“For some people, it can be daunting,” he said. “There are some who use the system with no problem at all. Then there are some that rely on paratransit because they don’t believe their orientation skills are sufficient.”

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind, said the biggest challenge to using the navigation technology throughout the subway system is installing the infrastructure in every single station.

“It’s never going to replace the need for a blind person to have a white cane or a guide dog,” Danielsen said. “But it could be a very important supplement to help navigate independently.”

With PERCEPT, tags that are nearly as small as a Scrabble tile are placed throughout the station. Users listen to detailed directions on their phone that lead them from tag to tag until the user gets to their destination.

For example, the directions given at one tag might be: “With the tag to your right side, turn right and trail the wall on your right side, until you reach the metal gate. This is a long hallway that will lead into main lobby.”

The app developers partnered with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to develop the directions, using mobility instructors who help blind people get acquainted with new areas.

Gale said using the PERCEPT app is empowering. “I don’t care if it’s teaching a person to put peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich again, or go through a subway station,” he said. “It’s all contributing toward a person having their own world, their own space, their own freedom.”

Gale thinks others with “hidden” disabilities, such as cognitive issues, could also find the application useful.

“Whatever the disability might be, those folks can benefit from a system like that,” he said. “It’s like having a friend in your pocket that you can rely on.”

Tabor, who moved to Watertown in 2011 to live and work at the Perkins School for the Blind, thinks most people take their independence for granted.

From the school, the Connecticut native often takes the bus to the subway to meet friends in the Park Street area. He rarely strays from the stations he knows, and prefers to be shown around by a mobility instructor or a friend.

But with a program like PERCEPT, he hopes to become more spontaneous.

“A GPS can get you down a street or to a building,” he said. “But when you’re in a place like a T station, it’s really helpful to know there’s something that can help you get through it.”

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.