Metro

New app helps blind riders navigate the MBTA

Sometimes, GPS just isn’t enough.

For blind people who want to navigate the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s system, GPS directions can bring someone within about 30 feet of a bus stop. But the bus could still pass by if the person isn’t standing close enough to the stop.

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Those “feet of frustration” led staff at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown to partner with the MBTA and Raizlabs, a Boston digital app development firm, to develop Blindways, an app that uses crowdsourced directions to help blind people identify bus stops more accurately.

Joann Becker, a technology specialist at Perkins School for the Blind, said the program will solve a longstanding problem for people with visual impairment.

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“When I would walk down the street with GPS, it would tell me that there was a bus stop, but I could be 30 or 50 feet away and not have any idea,” she said. “The bus would drive right past me when it’s 20 degrees outside. I was desperate to find out how I could identify the bus stop.”

Enter Perkins Solutions, the school’s technology lab. Together with Luiza Aguiar, Perkins Solutions’ director of product, and Raizlabs, Becker helped develop an app to make sure she was standing in the right spot at the right time.

With Blindways, now available in Apple’s app store, users find bus stops by hearing more about different features nearby, such as a tree, fire hydrant, or bench. The information uses information from the MBTA, as well as crowdsourced data.

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Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, helped fund the initiative with a $750,000 grant for projects focusing on people living with disabilities.

The MBTA and Perkins School held a ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the launch of the app, which came just days after the MBTA announced a partnership with Uber and Lyft for door-to-door service for customers with disabilities. Officials said many blind people have already found ride-for-hire services a convenient way to get around, and the MBTA is now subsidizing their rides through a year-long pilot program.

In 2014, the MBTA helped fund an indoor navigation system that helped people make their way through T stations by listening to step-by-step instructions on their smartphones.

“Public transportation provides a vital lifeline for people with disabilities to access employment, education, healthcare, other critical services and amenities,” Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said in a statement.

The apps all share a goal: making sure people with disabilities have the chance to be as self-reliant as possible.

“It really is going to create more independence,” Becker said.

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