The Perkins School got a $750,000 Google grant to change how blind people take the bus

The Watertown school will develop a navigation app to help visually impaired commuters.

We’ve all had the experience of missing the bus, or watching helplessly as it whizzed by without stopping. But for the blind or low-vision community, just finding where the bus stop is located can be a challenge.

Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown received a $750,000 grant earlier this week from Google.org to help solve that problem.

As part of Google.org’s Impact Challenge: Disabilities—an open invitation from the technology company to nonprofits asking for ideas on how to tackle social issues—the Watertown school submitted a proposal to create what they call a “micro-navigation solution” for blind or low-vision commuters. They say it’s necessary for these commuters to be able to commute independently in a city.

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Take Joann Becker, a technology specialist at Perkins Solutions, the accessibility services and training division of the school. Baker is blind and commutes by bus, but struggles to get to bus stops.

“GPS on my smartphone gives me approximate information of where I am, and it doesn’t give me any information about physical bus stop locations,” Becker says in the video above. “I feel a pole with my cane, I think it’s a bus stop, but it turns out it isn’t. There’s no way as a blind person to be able to identify physical bus stops.”

Perkins School for the Blind

Most GPS technology brings someone no closer than 30 feet from their target, according to Perkins. Staff there have dubbed this the “last 30-feet problem.” This grant will fund the development of a mobile app that bridges the gap of that remaining uncharted territory.

Perkins aims to use micro-navigation technology and details crowdsourced by the vision community to bring app users within four to five feet (the standard length of a visually impaired person’s cane) of their exact destination. The developers hope that this can help visually impaired people travel more independently both in Boston and all around the world.

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“We’re proud that Google.org has recognized Perkins as a leader and innovator in assistive technology,” said Dave Power, president and CEO of the school, in a statement. “This grant will allow us to address a technology gap that keeps many people who are blind from getting to work, exploring their surroundings and contributing to their communities.”

Perkins is one of 29 organizations chosen by Google.org for a grant out of more than 1,000 proposals. Google.org awarded $20 million in total toward projects that use technology to solve accessibility challenges around the world.

 

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