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a view of rows of empty bus seats on a public transit bus

TransLoc’s mobile real-time transit information is revolutionizing transit not only for the general public, but also for riders with disabilities. Mike Switzer is an orientation and mobility specialist who teaches travel skills at the North Carolina Rehabilitation Center for the Blind (NCRCB). Mike recently came to the TransLoc office with some information that surprised and inspired all of us. He shared how our mobile app was playing a crucial role in creating independence and giving the visually impaired control of transit. Read our interview with Mike below to learn more about the positive impact TransLoc is having in the NCRCB program.

TransLoc: Can you tell me just a little about the NCRCB?

Mike: Yes, we are a rehab center. In the summer we have a transition program for juniors and seniors in high school to transition into college or work. During the year we have what’s called an “able” program. It’s for people who are disabled or who have a visual impairment who are aged 18-60, working age basically. We work on skills across the board in terms of daily living, technology, career skills, mobility skills to get them up and functioning and able to live their life, and to rejoin the work force. We also have a two week program that is for seniors which is more of a daily living skills type thing. Just to get around their house and try to live as independently as possible.

TransLoc: Do you have a specialty at the NCRCB?

Mike: Yes. Mine is orientation and mobility, so I do the travel skills. We get students who have a wide spectrum of visual impairment. They can have some useable vision, all the way to blindness. We work with the spectrum of transportation, travel, independent movement.

TransLoc: Can you tell me more about the transit specific aspect of the program and where TransLoc fits in?

Mike: The transit aspect of course is near the end of the program. We start with how to get around their dorm room [and move up to urban downtown settings]. Usually when we get to urban and downtown, that’s where we tie in the bus transportation aspects.

So, they learn how transportation systems typically work in a general sense, and then they start learning how to get on a bus with a visual impairment.

What the app has allowed students to do is circumvent dependence on somebody else to help them go through this process. With the app, it has empowered the students independently to go to TransLoc and to see what bus route they need, see where the bus stop is located, get down there and actually monitor the bus.

Another aspect of TransLoc that is useful for our low vision users—people who are visually impaired but have some vision—is the accessibility feature that blows up the screen. So what we’ve been teaching them to do [once they board the bus] is to move their screen over to their destination stop. Then use the GPS dot as it moves down the line to actually signal the bus driver to the stop.

TransLoc: It sounds like any place that you can cut down on dependence is a very good thing. So why is that so important?

Mike: Well If you think about it, a lot of these people have been living ‘normal lives’ so to speak, and then they’ve lost their vision and have had a lot of things taken away from them. When they come here we try to give them that back. This [app] is giving the students a little bit more back, and once they’re able to actually pull the app up themselves and monitor the bus and know where they’re going, it gets them a little closer to that ‘normal’ realm.

TransLoc: There are probably people that are in your position across the country that don’t have access to this technology. How has it helped you in your job, and what have really been the top [few] benefits of having it available to you?

Mike: Basically, with the TransLoc app, I’m able to really shelve a lot of the old strategies and teachings that we did. I still bring up some of the strategies, but before that was all we had. You were really kind of confined in a way.

Like I said, when you get on the bus, you’re basically soliciting assistance. That’s what we were teaching. You’ve got to speak up. What this has allowed us to do is to say ‘Hey, you can take control of the things that we were telling you to solicit assistance with.’

TransLoc: Braille schedules are hard to create, expensive to create, and then once they’ve been created they’re basically old. But, here you’ve got an updated schedule constantly, right?

Mike: Yeah, constantly. The braille bus schedules, which would be two sides, would be 15 pages of braille. And then you’d have to go read through all of that. Then, by the time you got that braille schedule—because they’d had somebody braille it up—[the agency] had changed the routes.

TransLoc: In communicating with transit agencies, what are the top 3 or 4 things that a transit agency can do to be aware of the visually impaired and the blind?

Mike: In terms of using the transit system, just providing access to the routes and where they run. En-route, I think [some agencies have] started using audible announcements, but they’re only targeted at certain intersections. So those are two types of needed information.

I think that the apps that we’re seeing with GPS are really changing things for people with visual impairments. They’re probably changing things for people with other disabilities too.

TransLoc: So, I’m a busy transit administrator trying to communicate to a lot of different types of riders—young riders, old riders, visually impaired riders, blind riders. What are some easy ways for me to get [an idea of] the experience that my visually impaired or blind riders are having?

Mike: Well they could put an [eye mask] on and try to catch the bus and ride the bus to a place. Getting on the bus is a task in itself. Just stepping up onto it and finding where the door is and to get in and being able to pay the fare, and just knowing your spatial relations within the bus.

TransLoc: How do you actually train somebody to ride the bus?

Mike: It depends. When we’ve had big groups, say the summer time when we had big groups of high school students, we’ve actually taken them to what we call ‘the bus barn.’ They’ve had a bus where they can get out and check it out.

TransLoc: Do you have partnerships with local transit to do that?

Mike: Yeah. And we’ll do the special relations stuff a couple times and then move to getting off and finding a place, to get their confidence up. Then we’ll tack on having to know when the bus is coming, getting on, paying, and finding a seat. That’s kind of how we do it.

TransLoc: When you’re teaching someone about TransLoc is, how long does it take between when they’re introduced to it and when they can actually go out and use it?

Mike: It depends on the individual and how familiar they are with navigating a smartphone. This is brand new to us, so we’re just grabbing these things as they come in and using them. What we’d like to do as a department moving forward is to start incorporating these apps with an actual curriculum.

Hearing how our app is helping the blind and visually impaired has inspired us to continue to innovate and push ourselves to benefit every rider. Mike made us aware of how our app is being used in ways we never knew about, and is now helping guide us as we conceptualize the next version of our TransLoc app.