DOTTY 2024 Awardee Dr. John-Ross Rizzo: Clearing roadblocks for the visually impaired

Scientist, physician, professor, and MTA boardmember Dr. John-Ross Rizzo develops cutting-edge technology to help the visually impaired navigate the world with confidence.

| 13 Mar 2024 | 01:54

For Dr. John-Ross Rizzo, the task of improving navigation for the visually impaired is personal. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with choroideremia, a medical condition which progressively narrowed his field of vision to a straw-like tunnel.

Despite being legally blind for 20 years, Rizzo spends his days “ping-ponging” around New York City for work. He holds multiple positions across NYU; faculty member of the engineering departments, professor of rehabilitation medicine, associate professor of neurology. He’s also NYU Langone Health System’s director of disability inclusion.

The commutes are far from easy. Rizzo will use paratransit offerings like Access-A-Ride, and he does a lot of walking. “I think it’s important for me to understand the urban jungle that we live in so I can make sure that my skills are on point,” he said.

Rizzo also depends on public transportation; it’s the most efficient option for bouncing from home, to offices, to meetings, to lecture halls.

But, for now, he needs a trusted person to help navigate the subway system safely.

His research aims to change that. Over the years, Rizzo has focused on developing apps and wearable devices that use AI-mapping technology, akin to what is used by self-driving vehicles, to help the blind navigate the world in real time.

‘A new chapter’

On top of juggling upwards of a dozen research projects and multiple roles with NYU, Rizzo took his work a step further last June by joining the MTA board to make public transportation more accessible for the visually impaired.

“Traditionally, I’m a technologist. I build things. I test things. I never really thought of myself as a policymaker,” said Rizzo.

But in his work as NYU Langone’s director of disability inclusion inspired him to do more. He recounted a situation in which a client brought up multiple accessibility concerns that had not been addressed. “We came up with a solution...and when that woman found out about it, she started crying,” said Rizzo.

“The clinic director communicated that to me, and said how important it was for her to know that she was heard, and how her experience has now created sort of an indelible mark on everyone else’s experience.”

Realizing that he could be a voice for others “stuck in my head as indirect gospel to me,” he said. “Suddenly seeing the light that I should focus more on policy...and really thinking about that as a new chapter in my life.”

Cooking and karate

During what little free time he has, Rizzo enjoys cooking meals and playing board games with his wife and “two rambunctious boys,” and practicing martial arts. He has two black belts.

“At this point, I’m doing adaptive karate because my visual condition has progressed a lot,” he said. “That’s been quite an adjustment, but it’s something I’ve been able to roll with. Pun intended.”