June 13, 2019
Don Schaefer, Specialist, Social Media, Consumer Technology Association
An Interview with David J. Shaffer
The Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA) committee on intelligent mobility announced a new standard for designing inclusive, audio-based indoor navigation systems that will help provide real-time wayfinding and location support for people who are blind or low vision.
We sat down with one of the committee members, David Shaffer, access policy officer, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to discuss his work on the standard and why it is so important for the accessibility community.
Developing an indoor navigation system in our rail stations was not an easy task, especially before recent developments in technology. First, our system can be complex, even for people with all their vision. Second, our stations have lots of open space and a limited number of landmarks, and these conditions can be challenging for blind users. Our first attempts were solely by written routes in one station. Our next pilot used Bluetooth beacons, but they lacked the capability to inform the user of direction or distance, merely notifying users where they were. Although this early system worked and people could use it, it was awkward and difficult for many.
My contribution to the standards was based upon our experience of what worked and what didn’t in our two pilots, as well as my own experience where I travel the system every day as part of my job.
Without a wayfinding system, blind/low vision customers must be trained, station by station, by individual Orientation & Mobility (O&M) instructors. When you need to go to a station you have never been to before, it can be challenging since we have nine basic station designs among our 91 stations. Outdoor navigation to surrounding buses or bus stops is even more difficult because current GPS is only good to about 50 feet, making it difficult to find a bus stop sign.
The CTA standard will help us move to the current state-of-the-art in audio navigation in our system. We already have the most accessible system in the U.S of any major city; all our railcars, stations, and buses are fully accessible. This project is the next step to creating an equal experience for those with vision and those without, so the blind/low vision customers can travel the system as easily as the customers with vision.
I also sought to incorporate as many of the principles of the ADA, the accessibility regulations for public places and those for transit into these standards. Although we recognized that not every path can be completely ADA-compliant, especially with facilities built before 1990, we sought to incorporate those principles into the design, as well as the philosophy that, to be fully accessible, the experience of a person with a disability should be substantially equivalent to someone without a disability.
The next big step is the development of 5G technology, which will make these systems even more accurate and flexible. I believe that in the next five years we will see a proliferation of audio wayfinding systems for the blind/low vision in airports, train stations, public buildings, some corporate headquarters, and the bus systems of major cities.
We provide free bus and rail transportation for all our paratransit customers, and half-fare for all persons with disabilities. We want to encourage our customers to choose bus and rail, which is the most efficient and cost-effective form of local travel. These systems are a cost-effective way to provide those with disabilities the same freedom to travel as everyone else and will promote more fully the inclusion of people with disabilities into the workplace and society.
The complete standard is available for free at CTA.tech/standards.