Pat Sheehan, a blind man with a white and red cane, descended into the bedlam of the Chinatown side of Metro’s Gallery Place station during Tuesday afternoon’s rush hour.
Even for those who can see, the station can be confounding. The escalator from the street leads to one level with orange floors — which leads to more escalators down to the next level. There, on the other side of the fare gates, are more escalators leading down to Yellow and Green line trains.
Somewhat hidden from view past the fare gates is a set of escalators heading back up to the Glenmont-bound Red Line trains Sheehan was seeking. Another sign points to the escalators for the Shady Grove-bound Red Line trains.
Cane in his left hand, Sheehan stood at the bottom of the escalator from the street. With his right hand, he pointed his smartphone straight ahead.
Somewhere, likely far from D.C., a woman named Marissa was working at home, seeing what Sheehan’s phone was capturing.
“There’s an orange floor with a diagonal pattern,” she said. Straight ahead about 30 feet are the turnstiles, said Marissa, who works for a service called Aira.
Sheehan, who is 65 and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs testing the accessibility of computers, could imagine it. He was able to see for the first 34 years of his life.
For those who can afford it, technology is changing what it’s like to be blind. A voice when you’re watching a movie can explain what’s happening on the screen; a computer can read emails aloud; and a remote personal assistant can explain surroundings in a busy Metro station.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Sheehan, a member of a committee that advises Metro on serving seniors and people with disabilities.
In his 20s, Sheehan ran marathons. In his 30s, he lost the vision in his right eye to a degenerative condition, but could still see with his left.
One day when he was 34, he was helping a friend move a couch. As they passed a tree, the friend bent back a limb. As the friend cleared it, the limb snapped back into Sheehan’s good eye.
As he stood on the platform at the station, he could tell the floor was getting brighter, then dimmer. From experience, he knew he was near the lights signaling that his train to Silver Spring was approaching.
But he couldn’t tell where to enter.
“There’s a door straight ahead. But there’s a lot of people coming out,” Marissa said.
Marissa waited for the stream of people getting off to stop. Seeing people step aside for Sheehan, Marissa said, “OK, you can go now.”
Sheehan pays $99 for 120 minutes a month of Aira service, so he only uses it when he’s at stations he doesn’t visit often, like Gallery Place. Aira says the service, which launched in 2017, offers monthly plans ranging from $29 for 30 minutes to $199 for 300 minutes.
Boston’s transit system is picking up the cost for the service on its vehicles, so that time does not count toward users’ data limits. Forty-two airports nationwide — though none of the three in the D.C. area — are doing the same, as are businesses like Walgreens.
The Smithsonian Institution also offers free Aira service, Sheehan noted. With Aira’s assistance, he said, he visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum one time. “There was a replica of one of the train cars that they put the Jews in,” he said. “They let you walk in that car. You can imagine sitting there all the other people who’d been there. You could feel the emotion.”
Aira’s public policy director, Paul Schroeder, said he’s had discussions with Metro about adding the service but hasn’t gotten any commitments.
In July, Metro did announce plans to offer a free disability services app by October 2020 for trains and buses. Unlike Aira, the Metro app doesn’t involve a live person. Instead, beacons triangulate a user’s location and offer pre-recorded turn-by-turn directions, like GPS in a car.
As Sheehan’s train rumbled along, he could tell from a sudden brightening that it was emerging from the tunnel at Union Station.
He was asked about losing his sight.
“It’s like anything else, when you lose something. What are you going to do? You can curl up and die or make the best of it,” he said, adding, “I did go back and break that tree branch, though.”