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Helping the disabled make use of public transport

In an ideal world, all buses would be wheelchair friendly and train timetables would be available as audio recordings for the visually impaired. Reality has yet to catch up with that vision, so instead European researchers have developed a personal navigation aid to help disabled people make use of public transport.

By letting disabled people know in advance which bus routes, subway lines or rail links are disabled friendly, people with disabilities can plan journeys that they may otherwise be unable to make unassisted. Once on the move, location-based services accessed via a smart phone or handheld computer can highlight points of interest, warn them of potential obstacles and let them change their itinerary as needs be.

“Until you meet with disabled people and talk to them about their needs it is hard to imagine just how difficult using public transport is,” notes Gary Randall, a researcher at BMT in the United Kingdom. “They are scared of finding themselves isolated, of being abandoned in the world.”

Someone confined to a wheelchair, for example, may end up stuck at a bus stop many kilometres from home if a bus with wheelchair access never arrives, or a blind person could easily become lost trying to make a train connection if there is no one to assist him or her. For that reason, few disabled people use public transport alone in what constitutes a severe restriction of their freedom and autonomy.

To address that problem, researchers working in the EU-funded MAPPED project developed personal navigation software designed specifically to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The system extends technology used in now commonplace GPS navigation aids. It incorporates information about public transport timetables and routes as well as so-called points of interest to disabled people in what the researchers describe as the first application of its kind.

Accessability info in advance

“A point of interest for someone with a disability is often very different from what [it] would be for you or me,” says Randall who coordinated the initiative.

He notes, for example, that someone with limited mobility would want to know if a building has an elevator or if you have to go up steps to enter a restaurant, while a blind person would find it useful to know in advance if a certain supermarket has someone available to help with their shopping. That information is obtained wirelessly from a preloaded database. The data is then presented to the user in a variety of formats tailored to their individual needs, including visual maps and audio instructions.

“Curiously, despite the wide variety of disabilities, we found that the needs of different groups of test users were very similar regardless of whether they were in a wheelchair, visually impaired or had hearing disabilities,” Randall says. “They all want the reassurance that having a personal navigation aid can provide.”

In trials in Dublin and in Winchester in the United Kingdom, people with different types of disabilities tested different versions of the system. Their reactions were generally positive, with 84 percent saying they would find a route planner such as that developed in MAPPED useful in their daily lives.

Nonetheless, the trials identified several challenges that must be overcome before such a system goes into commercial use.

Users tended to find the off-the-shelf PDA on which the software was installed difficult to use because of its small buttons and screen, while the accuracy and reliability of the GPS information needs to be improved to make micro-level route planning effective. New mobile devices with better user interfaces and incorporating digital compasses, coupled with the roll-out of Europe’s more accurate Galileo positioning system should solve those problems over the coming years.

“Usability and reliability are obviously crucial,” Randall says.

An even bigger problem, however, may be gathering the information about public transport routes, timetables and, especially, the accessibility features of museums, restaurants, shops and other points of interest.

“For the trials, we had to go around and visit restaurants and cinemas individually to see what their accesses were like – that is evidently not a practical solution,” Randall notes.

Instead, the researchers have considered allowing users to add their own content or working with business directories to obtain the information.

In light of the challenges, Randall believes public-sector support will be essential if a navigation aid such as that developed in MAPPED, which was funded under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme, is to be widely used.

In that vein, he foresees the system or elements of it being deployed in different European cities where local governments have the political will to make location-based services for disabled people, tourists and other users available.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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