An app that shows people with disabilities the way

Way Buddy helps people with learning difficulties to follow routes by showing them pictures of landmarks along the way

Sarah Gavra Boland, centre, with Grant Brady and Lisa McEvoy at the St John of God Menni Services centre in Tallaght. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sarah Gavra Boland, centre, with Grant Brady and Lisa McEvoy at the St John of God Menni Services centre in Tallaght. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 01:00

‘I love trying to make things accessible,” Sarah Gavra Boland says. She’s sitting in an office in Tallaght surrounded by laptops, tablets and smartphones, some of which are hers and some of which belong to the young people with learning disabilities that she works with.

Boland (no relation) was one of the winners of last year’s Vodafone World of Difference competition. The competition supports social innovators to work on their ideas for one year – ideas that must focus on a charity that helps young people. The office Boland is sitting in is that of her chosen charity, St John of God Menni Services, which works with young people with intellectual disabilities.

Her idea was to develop an app that would help people such as those who use the Menni Services to travel independently and safely between locations. “Ten years ago, there wasn’t the technology to do this, but now there is,” she says.

The traditional way of helping people find their route includes using prompt photographs of landmarks along the way, which is both heavy on paper consumption and cumbersome. Boland’s app, Way Buddy, which she has continued to develop in the last year, combines a number of existing technologies.

“It’s about empowering people,” she says. “Maybe some people can’t tie a shoelace, but they can do this. We tried audio with Google Maps, but it didn’t work. It was too confusing. So it’s image-heavy and text-minimal now. Users take their own pictures of their route.”


Hot the app works

Grant Brady (18) demonstrates how it works by using the Way Buddy app on his iPhone to guide us from the office to the nearest Luas stop, at Tallaght hospital. He has a few key routes programmed on his app, which take him from home to the centre and back again, and to town and back. We start at the front door of the building, which there is a picture of: this is the work-to-home route. As we pass pre-programmed landmarks, the pictures scroll on automatically. There is a picture of the traffic lights at which we cross, with a reminder and cue to wait for the green man.

Brady can see how many minutes it will be before the next Luas arrives, as the app links in to real-time updates from Dublin Bus and the Luas. For security, his mother and others who have access to his log-in and can see where he is at any point in his journey, because his location details are shared with them. If he goes 100m off-route in any direction, an alarm message is sent to those who have his details. We arrive at the Luas stop in jig time, and the tram arrives three minutes later, as Brady told me it would.

It takes an average of six months to learn a route, so, unlike his friend Lisa McEvoy (20), who also uses the Menni services, he does not yet travel alone; he will be shadowed on his journeys until he can manage them alone. McEvoy already knew four routes before she got Way Buddy on her phone, and can travel alone on them, but she wants to learn new routes, which the app is helping her with.

Way Buddy is still in development, so it’s not yet available on iTunes, but she hopes that will happen in due course.

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