By Anna Guaracao
Boston University News Service
BOSTON – In the coming months, MBTA passengers with vision issues will have access to new features to make their ride easier, from braille signs, tones indicating the location of doors, elevator urine detecting sensors and better PA systems.
“Blind folks need public transportation to get around in the community—to go to the store, visit friends, and doctor appointments,” John Oliveira, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB), told a virtual town hall earlier this month.
The session, held on Oct. 7., was the second virtual town hall of the year, and featured updates by MBTA officials on accessibility and customer technology for the Boston area’s blind and visually impaired community.
The MBTA’s Department of System-Wide Accessibility is currently focused on several initiatives, including a monitoring program that allows on-the-ground staff to respond to issues confronting customers with disabilities.
The department’s assistant general manager, Laura Brelsford, told the meeting that the MBTA would introduce new Orange and Red Line vehicles in the upcoming months with improved color contrast inside, enhanced PA systems, door locator tones, tactile/braille signs at each doorway and new priority seating signage.
“During the design phase, my team, along with a group of riders with disabilities, worked with the project team to ensure that these vehicles would be our most accessible ever,” Brelsford said. “We are excited to see these coming online over the next several months.”
The MBTA also plans to install elevator screens with accompanying audio to indicate elevator outages—and elevator urine detecting sensors in a few downtown stations in November and December.
According to Product Manager Karti Subramanian, these soon-to-come innovative solutions will improve travel for disabled persons. Subramanian discussed plans for a system to improve indoor wayfinding for the blind community.
“In 2019, blind riders told us that navigating unfamiliar stations was the biggest barrier to taking non-routine trips on the T,” Subramanian said. “We are hiring a project manager to help launch a pilot to learn from the blind community about whether any of the existing technology solutions stand out above all others.”
There are around 26,000 blind people registered with the commission for the blind, which issues a Blind ID Card that allows cardholders to ride free with a Blind Access CharlieCard.
There is also access to the RIDE program—a paratransit service for anyone who can’t use the subway, bus, or trolley. Those eligible can sign up for RIDE Flex, an on-demand online collaboration with Lyft and Uber launched in 2016. With a monthly allocation of subsidized trips, customers can take on-demand trips anywhere in the RIDE service area.
“The pilot program has been very successful in increasing mobility for our customers and improving their overall experience,” said Mahour Rahimi, the MBTA’s deputy chief of paratransit services.
Rahimi also introduced a new initiative for the program: a call-in feature that doesn’t require internet.
“The call-in feature provides access to all of our customers regardless of whether they have smartphones or tablets,” Rahimi added. “It broadens accessibility for our customers to book trips regardless of their access to technology.”
At one point in the virtual meeting, an unidentified participant questioned why such services are provided to the legally blind, but not those with severely limited vision.
“Massachusetts residents with a vision of 20/80 or worse lose their right to drive but do not qualify for services available to the legally blind,” they said. “The loss of driving can have an immediate impact on one’s ability to keep employment … I spent many months unemployed. Is the MBTA or another state agency considering a way to help individuals like myself?”
According to David D’Arcangelo, the MCB commissioner, the commission has been one of 15 agencies in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) that supports individuals who are not only legally blind but also visually impaired.
“All of our consumers are unique and medical determinations should be made by medical care providers. In the law, it says 20/200 or less,” D’Arcangelo said. “But we need to work on a case-by-case basis with consumers and their medical providers to determine if it’s appropriate that they become a consumer of MCB.”
D’Arcangelo describes access to MBTA services as essential for the blind and visually impaired community to achieve successful employment outcomes.
“At MCB, we constantly strive for successful employment outcomes for the people we serve who are blind or visually impaired,” D’Arcangelo said. “Employment offers a path to financial independence and the opportunity to contribute to society in meaningful ways.”