A voice in the dark: Cobb County Transit makes maps accessible to the blind
by Sarah Westwood
June 26, 2014 04:00 AM | 5128 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cherie Newton laughs while working with the Cobb Geographic Information Systems’ ‘What’s In It For Me?’ site at the Cobb County Transit offices Monday. Newtown, who is visually impaired, was instrumental in testing the compatibility of the site.<br>Staff/C.B. Schmelter
Cherie Newton laughs while working with the Cobb Geographic Information Systems’ ‘What’s In It For Me?’ site at the Cobb County Transit offices Monday. Newtown, who is visually impaired, was instrumental in testing the compatibility of the site.
Staff/C.B. Schmelter
MARIETTA — Cherie Newton has been unable to see the world around her for decades. Navigating her way through the various construction and improvement projects that dot the county can therefore prove challenging, especially because she can’t look at updated pictures or maps.

But thanks to a new initiative from Cobb County Transit, the Marietta resident is now able to hear them.

Newton said she lost her sight in 1994 after a lifetime of visual impairment due to a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, which causes a slow degeneration of the retina.

Accompanied by a guide dog since 1996, Newton said she doesn’t let her blindness stand in the way of seeking “challenges.”

Lynn Biggs, supervisor for the county transportation department's Geographic Information Systems, said the department began working in November on an online map that allowed residents — including those with visual impairments — to access a list of transportation and park projects within a five-mile radius of a given address.

“It’s important for everyone to have project information, especially because they’re taxpayers,” Biggs said. “They should know what’s going on in their backyard.”

When the Transit Advisory Board took up the issue at one of its earliest meetings on the map project — entitled “What’s In It For Me?” — Newton, a MARTA agent who sits on the board, said she saw an opportunity to help herself and the 8,002 visually-impaired individuals Biggs estimates live in the county enjoy greater mobility.

“I’d been screaming about accessibility,” she explained, “so, I said, ‘Is it accessible?’ And they said, ‘What do we need to do?’”

Newton noted the information in traditional transit maps is inaccessible to blind people because screen reading software, which the visually impaired use to operate computers, can’t recognize such graphics.

“It doesn’t read scanned documents. It doesn’t read graphics, pictures or maps,” Netwon said of the program she relies on. “You could take a picture of a stop sign. It would clearly read S-T-O-P, but the screen reader is going to see it as a graphic and will tell me it’s either a graphic or blank.”

Jennifer Lana, the county's GIS manager, said her team set out to create maps screen readers — such as the one Newton uses every day — could recognize and interpret.

Lana said a series of meetings and user testing streamlined the technical process that eventually made the map friendly to screen readers. “After a couple of iterations, we have successfully modified the ‘What’s In It For Me’ Web map so that (it) is straightforward for the screen reader user to access and retrieve DOT and parks improvement project information,” she said in an email to county officials.

Newton’s program works by reading words off the screen aloud to her at a speed so quick she described it as “Alvin (the Chipmunk) on steroids.”

“When you don’t see, you hear faster,” she explained.

Simple tweaks to the coding behind the new map allow such programs to read aloud information within the application, which Biggs said can be accessed by computer, phone or tablet.

Biggs explained the same maps unimpaired people can pull up on their screens are the ones blind people can now listen to; the initiative did not require the creation of a separate map for those who cannot see it.

Wayne Zhang, a GIS program analyst, led the technical side of the initiative.

“You’ve got to be a little bit creative to think about how to make it work,” Zhang said of the development process.

“Cherie was so gracious and an enthusiastic tester for us,” Biggs said. “We would do tweaks on the application, we’d send it to Cherie to try it out, and she’d provide us with feedback. I believe it was just two iterations. It just hit.”

Lana said the GIS group was able to complete the project without the help of outside firms, costing the department nothing but employee brainpower.

“If we had gone out and hired someone else, it may have cost us $30,000, if we had done it from scratch,” Lana noted.

Newton said she hopes the technology that will now allow her to stay abreast of improvement projects in her neighborhood can be applied to other service graphics — especially to the county’s paratransit service maps.

Cobb’s paratransit service allows disabled residents who live within three-quarters of a mile from designated routes to request an equipped public bus to pick them up from home on-demand and get around town, Newton explained.

The key is making sure you live in or have access to the service zone, she warns, because the buses do not provide transportation for people with disabilities who live beyond its boundaries.

Biggs said the transit authority has received the green light to develop a map allowing visually-impaired people to hear whether any address they enter is in the paratransit zone, as well as what routes they are able to take.

She noted such an update could help the 4,062 registered paratransit users with sight disabilities have more mobility.

Zhang expressed confidence he could repeat his success for Cobb’s paratransit riders.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Biggs said, “so I think, if we can do it, why not?”

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