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Kenny Pittman is a model employee. His boss said his positive, can-do attitude is a major asset in the cafeteria at Barger Academy of Fine Arts where he works.

His only problem was getting there.

Pittman has an intellectual disability that prevents him from driving and makes navigating on his own a challenge. For months, someone from Orange Grove Center — a Chattanooga-based nonprofit serving adults and children with intellectual disabilities — took him to work each day. But in January, Pittman started using the mobile application WayFinder and now rides the bus on his own.

Lack of accessible or affordable transportation is a major barrier to employment for people with disabilities. That's why Pittman is one of six people part of a pilot program with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Orange Grove and the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) to support people with cognitive disabilities in navigating public transit independently using WayFinder.

CARTA travel trainer Alana Shores said at a news conference Friday that the goal is to support participants in becoming more independent throughout the community by riding the bus.

"Our focus is to teach [them] about the technology as it pertains to using the bus service, but most importantly our focus is to teach [them] bus safety, as well as public safety, too," she said, adding that "CARTA is excited to see how many others we can help in our community with the technology."

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Contributed photo by Tennessee DIDD / Kenny Pittman, center, uses the WayFinder app on a tablet as he rides a bus to his job at Barger Academy of Fine Arts while travel trainer Alana Shores, left, and Marvin Roseberry, right, a case manager at Orange Grove Center, assist. Pittman is part of a pilot program with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Orange Grove and Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, or CARTA, that's using the mobile app to support people with cognitive disabilities in navigating public transportation independently.

At the start of his trip to work each day, Pittman taps on a picture of his destination on a mobile device, and the software takes over. Step-by-step visual and audio instructions guide him and help assure Pittman that he's on the correct route by pointing out important landmarks along the way. When it's time to get off the bus, the app reminds him to pull the cord to let the bus driver know to stop.

While he's en route, caregivers or travel trainers have the opportunity to get feedback in real time and reach out to Pittman. He can also send messages and request assistance if needed.

Daniel Davies, founder and president of AbleLink Technologies — the company that created WayFinder — said he was inspired to develop the app by his older brother who had intellectual disabilities.

"It's really designed to provide people a tool to do what they can do, and they can do so much more than many times what they've been given an opportunity to do," Davies said.

Shores, along with other partners, spent months creating scheduled bus routes, taking pictures and recording audio instructions based on each individual's travel plans.

Brad Turner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, said the program is successful because of the hard work and dedication of those involved.

"The incredible public-private partnership that has launched this initiative will make Chattanooga a national leader in accessibility and inclusion and set an example for other communities to follow," Turner said in a statement.

With new skills and independence, Pittman has gained more confidence and recently earned a promotion.

"There's dignity in employment, and all we're doing is allowing people to be able to pursue the types of opportunities that they deserve," Turner said. "There are going to be more stories like Kenny's being spread all across the state of Tennessee."

The program was funded through the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities' Enabling Technology program. Launched in May 2018, it now has about 100 users of the "enabling technology to live and work more independently," according to a news release.

For more information about the Enabling Technology Initiative, click here.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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Contributed photo by Tennessee DIDD / Kenny Pittman and his training team board a Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, or CARTA, bus as Pittman learns to use the WayFinder mobile application and safely ride the bus. Pittman is part of a pilot program with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Orange Grove Center and CARTA that's using WayFinder to support people with cognitive disabilities in navigating public transportation independently.
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