Bryan Velazquez was early to meet me at Inwood Public Library.

He was wearing a striped sweater—”I wore something nice, just in case.”—with his two most important tools: a smartphone in one hand and his white cane folded neatly in the other.

Velazquez had agreed to commute from Inwood to Madison Square Park to demonstrate how people who are blind are taught to use mass transit and navigate New York City streets on their own.

Velazquez, 29, was not always so independent. Growing up in a Dominican family with lots of Dominican neighbors, he said everybody knew each other. And they were used to seeing young Bryan always holding on to a family member.

The first day teenage Bryan walked to school on his own, his family got plenty of phone calls.

“When people saw me by myself in the neighborhood, it was as if an elephant had escaped the circus,” said Velazquez, imitating the callers: “‘Why is he out here?’ ‘Did he escape the house?’ ‘Is he okay?’ ‘Is he lost?’”

“Mind you, I was minding my business, with my blind SWAG, walking to the train station,” he added.

Bryan Velazquez sitting on an orange seat on the 1 train, holding his folded cane in his lap.

That first solo trip over a decade ago was the result of years of training with a mobility instructor, provided through New York City’s Educational Vision Services (EVS). The program serves students between five and 21 years old, pairing them with a Braille teacher and an orientation and mobility instructor. Not all students are cleared for independent travel; the goal is to make each child as independent as possible, whether that means teaching them to schedule Access-A-Ride trips or showing them how to hit the streets and public transportation.

Joyce Mandel was Velazquez’s mobility instructor. Now retired, she spent her whole career at the city’s Department of Education working with blind students.

“I loved it,” said Mandel by phone. “I used to take them into restaurants and say, okay go order something. Go find the counter, sit down and we’ll have a donut or something...I mean it’s a whole big shmegegge for people that can’t see! It’s not a one-day lesson.”

Listen to reporter Shumita Basu's story for WNYC:

EVS services are provided at no cost to the student, but Mandel said she met many parents over the years who were not interested or afraid to let their children venture out on their own.

“You can’t teach a kid if their parent doesn’t want to help,” said Mandel. “I mean, I get their concerns. It’s scary.”

And it can be scary for the student, too. Velazquez said he remembered feeling a lot of anxiety when he first trained with Mandel. He sometimes still hears her voice in his head, telling him to stay calm and focused.

“I make them feel safe, you know?” said Mandel. “If they make a mistake, they’re not going to get hurt. If they walk or step out into the street at the wrong time, I’m there to pull them back… It’s just repetition, repetition, repetition.”

To get cleared by an instructor for independent travel on a route, a student must navigate that route correctly three times in a row. That means everything from using the cane, to crossing the street, to evaluating the flow of traffic must be executed perfectly.

At an intersection along our walk to the subway, Velazquez explained the technique for crossing streets: first, listen to the cars. Are they moving perpendicular to the crosswalk or parallel? If they’re moving parallel, that means it’s your turn to cross. He said he usually crosses quickly with his hands up in the air, so that he’s easily seen by turning drivers.

Bryan Velazquez standing on street-level at the entrance to the subway station at 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, holding a white cane in his left hand and holding his phone up to his ear with his right hand.

“I Gotta Get With Technology, Man”

Until 2018, Velazquez had a flip phone. It was good for making phone calls, and nothing else.

He decided to spring for a smartphone when he took a vacation and wanted to document it with videos. That’s when he discovered all of the accessibility features.

“Voiceover’s amazing. Dictation is great,” said Velazquez. “I do type with the keyboard, double tap the letters.”

Going beyond the phone’s accessibility features, Velazquez found some helpful apps like MCT MoneyReader, which scans bills using your phone’s camera and announces the denominations aloud, and an app called Aira.

Powered by AT&T, Aira connects users to an agent who can access the caller’s GPS location and their device’s camera to provide out-loud descriptions of their surroundings in real time. [The app gets its name from a merging of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Remote Assistance (RA).] Aira is free to download, and so are the first five minutes of any call. After that, prices vary depending on the user’s subscription plan.

Last fall, the MTA entered into a three-month pilot with Aira to provide free calls in all 496 subway stations, as well as a number of other assistive apps, as part of its Accessible Station Lab at Jay St.-Metrotech. (An MTA spokesperson said the most popular apps during the pilot were NaviLens, which scans and reads signs out loud, and NaviLens Go for sighted users, which displays arrows and directional information in stations.)

Aira CEO Troy Otillio said that starting this week, Aira services would be available for free at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Airports, through an agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

On our day of commuting, Velazquez called up an Aira agent when we emerged from a subway station in Manhattan to ask how to get to the original Shake Shack. The agent used GPS to pull up the route and used Velazquez’s camera to describe every potential obstacle, every fire hydrant, every street crossing along the way.

Velazquez said even though assistive technology is not a replacement for mobility training, it’s a helpful supplement.

“Now I don’t have to depend on asking people for directions,” said Velazquez.

Velazquez teaches classes part-time at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, mostly on iPhone accessibility features. He said he understands not everyone is tech-savvy or even tech-comfortable, but after seeing what a difference it made for him in the past few years he felt strongly about encouraging blind users to get out of their comfort zone.

Hildegard Morales is one of Bryan’s students. She described herself as visually-impaired, soon to be 50 years old, and not particularly digitally-savvy.

“I’m old school,” she said. “I used to believe in pen and paper, but I guess now with a little time I’m starting to get into the tech world.”

She said she was in awe of Bryan’s ability to get around the city independently.

Two percent of New Yorkers identify as blind or low vision; that’s around 200,000 people. When We The Commuters put out a survey asking for experiences related to accessibility and transit, we heard from many people who were blind:

“I have so much trouble with the bike riders who don’t stop for signs, go through lights, ride on the wrong side of the street or in the middle of the street or on sidewalks.”

“The new pre-boarding bus MetroCard machines are hard to find if you are blind.”

“There is no way for a blind person to tell how much money is left on a MetroCard. And on buses, there is no way for a blind person to tell when the next bus is coming, except for a very bad clunky app.”

And some blind New Yorkers like Morales are simply unfamiliar or uncomfortable with assistive technology.

“It’s tough to get out of your comfort zone,” admitted Velazquez. “But aside from all that, once you learn tech, your life would be so much easier.”

“We Have Our Canes and We Got Places to Go”

The most common assumptions people make about blind people while commuting, Velazquez said, is that they’re lost or deaf or in need of help. He can tell by the way that other commuters sometimes grab him out of the blue to direct him, or take his arm and count slowly while he’s climbing a station staircase.

“The best thing to do is ask politely, ‘Sir, do you need help?’” said Velazquez. “Or I explain to them: ‘Oh no, it’s better if I take your arm, it’s much easier. Instead of grabbing. Because that scares you.”

Velazquez doesn’t mind asking for help when he needs it. And doesn’t mind being offered help, as long as people don’t insist, don’t grab.

“Please don't do that,” said Velazquez. “I understand you're trying to help, but we do have our canes and we got places to go.”