Beyond the Hype: Getting Down to Business with Aira Visual Interpreter for the Blind

The Aira logo: a light blue, lower case sanserif letter a surrounded by a white circle.

Aira, the new high tech visual interpreter service for the blind, has taken the blind community by storm this past year. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants to try it. Everyone has LOTS of opinions about it.

As a blind person who helps run an adaptive tech company, I do, too. The concept of a visual interpreter that is there whenever you need it, a set of eyes on demand, is pretty attractive. I appreciate the concept of Aira. Blind people have always had to do a lot of social engineering, or in other words, beg, borrow and steal visual help from people in the past. Although there are many, many nonvisual ways to get things done that are just as effective as eyesight, we live in a world built for vision. There are always a few random minutes here and there where we run into a visual road block. We need to either forget the task for now or find some eyeballs. Sometimes finding willing and available eyeballs can be tricky and can put the blind person in a position of vulnerability and kicks us away from control of our own lives. Sometimes, we have to barter or grovel on our knees more than we would like.

Aira potentially changes all that. Now, we can call up trained and vetted agents at anytime, day or night and they can unobtrusively give us visual information via our camera that they can see remotely. They also can be given access to our location, maps and information about where we are and what we are doing, and even access to our computer screens and tech support services like Quickbooks to walk us through a computer glich. With our permission, they can log in to our Uber and Lyft accounts and call us a ride share, and then tell us when they see it pull up. They do this professionally, on demand, and without invading our lives too terribly much. Its great!

But will it compromise Accessibility?

But it does cost us money. Aira is a subscription service with different price points per minutes of service per month. Unfortunately, the blind population faces a high rate of unemployment and poverty. Recognizing this, Aira has been expanding their network of “free access” service. Now, you can go into any Walgreens and get free minutes to do your shopping. You don’t pay for Aira, Walgreens does. The same has been true for an expanding network of airports and other public entities. The sales pitch to the company seems to be: “You are providing cheaper accessibility to the blind by providing Aira than it costs to pay for real live assistance and accessibility.”

This has many blind people worried. What if airports no longer offer escort assistance for the blind, or accessible websites because they think Aira covers all that? What if universities start providing free Aira to blind students rather than requiring professors to provide digital and accessible handouts and textbooks in alternative formats? What if Walgreen’s no longer bothers to provide an accessible website or perscription assistance because they figure “we paid for Aira, Aira can just help them?”

If you are a blind person dealing with inaccessible documents that you need to write a paper for your college class, or an inaccessible website to turn in your assignments, using Aira is not a good enough alternative. No one wants to have to research and write a paper with an Aira agent on the line for the entire process. As helpful as Aira can be for shorter tasks, it is a bit tedious to use for lengthy projects and cannot replace good, independent digital access.

If you want to run into Walgreen’s and pick up one thing, would it be faster to ask a salesclerk for help or to have the Aira agent telling you “up and to the left, down a little, to the right, next one over, yes, there is your Tylenol.” In this instance, I find it a personal choice. Some may like the autonomy and privacy of finding a personal item themselves, and to be able to take the time to browse rather than feel like they are taking the sales clerk’s time. Others just want to get the product and get out. With Aira, will companies still make other options available? Will they still think about what else they can do to make their business accessible to the blind? With the Aira network ever expanding, will it shed light on accessibility issues or bury them in a one-size-fits-all solution? Who gets to choose the accommodation? The blind person or the company who is required to be accessible?

The other concern that has come up in the blind community is the fear that blind people will start using Aira as a crutch and will be less likely to acquire good adaptive skills. Adapting to blindness is largely a skills-based endeavor. Those who are proficient in blindness skills like braille, orientation and mobility, computer access and techniques of daily living (like cooking, cleaning and organizing) report better employment rates, higher salaries and better quality of life. Aira has been marketing to vocational rehabilitation organizations. Advocates of skills training worry that VR will sacrifice the cost of providing skills training for the blind by way of providing them Aira, which can never replace blindness competencies. No one wants to be (or could probably afford to be) hooked up to an Aira agent for every task of the day. Nor would it work well when the two most popular Aira plans provide only 30 to 120 minutes of service a month.

But these issues are cultural and community issues that will need to be played out. Aira has done a good job of reaching out to the blind community to get input by partnering with the National Federation of the Blind and employing blind people in leadership roles. We can only hope that real access issues aren’t sacrificed for Aira’s profit margin, and that the conversation between Aira, the blind community and the larger world will remain open to working out these issues.

How Well Does it Work in Practice?

But how does Aira actually work? My partner, Nik, who is blind, and I decided to try it out. We had some very mixed experiences. I am probably not the target user of Aira. I am Deafblind. But I thought it should largely work for me, too. I thought it could potentially help Deafblind people in a lot of ways with a few modifications. We opted for the National Federation of the Blind plan, which gives us 140 minutes a month for $99. That’s a bit pricy for us, but that was the first plan where we could get the camera mounted glasses, which we thought would be necessary for me due to my deafblindness.

The 30 minute per month plans just use your phone’s camera and the app. In order to use it, you need to use speaker phone or some type of headset or earbuds and mic to talk and listen to the Aira agents while you hold the phone’s camera to what you want the agent to view. Agents give directions to you (“pan slowly to the left”) to help you aim the camera. Since I wear hearing aids that work with a bluetooth device I wear around my neck, and since I do not hear well on the phone and need my hands to use a braille display to control my phone, I thought that having the glasses was the only way I was going to have enough hands to interact with Aira.

Nik and I share the 140 minute plan (being NFB members gets us an extra 20 minutes for the same price as the normal 120 minute plan). I keep the glasses, and he uses his phone. Nik has had mostly successful experiences using Aira for business related things, which is part of Aira’s free access program for blind business owners. When Nik does a task that relates to our adaptive tech business, he gets free access. When we have had clients who need tech support for their computer, and their computer is misbehaving to the point where speech readers aren’t even working, Nik has been able to use Aira agents to tell him what is happening on the screen to get him to a point where he could fix the computer and get it up and talking again. When he does web accessibility testing and the website is so innaccessibly bad that he can’t make heads or tails of it, Aira agents have given him visual information as to what is happening on the screen so he can make appropriate reccommendations to the web developers to fix it. These tasks have worked great with Aira and the free access for blind business owners is very much appreciated.

I, however, have struggled to use Aira. I kind of expected this, as I knew that Aira was really made for very audio-based blind people. However, I strongly believed that with some tweaking, it could work for the Deafblind. But it has been more of a struggle to communicate with Aira about these issues than I ever anticipated.

It started at the very beginning. When I called to sign up for Aira, there was a 30 days free deal going on. However, this did not include the glasses. I wanted to know whether I could get the deal but with the glasses as a Deafblind accommodation. But that question went unanswered because I gave up. I had asked repeated questions about Aira and deafblindness via their website’s contact page, but those inquiries were never answered. So I called the customer service number via TTY relay. I only rarely can pull off using a phone and that is with much physical pain and mental concentration. I avoid talking to people on the phone if I can help it. If people must be called, I use Sprint TTY relay, where a relay operator types what the voice on the other end is saying to me. This seemed to trip up my Aira customer service agent, because he seemed to not understand or know how to interact with the TTY agent. So, it was a confusing conversation, it got escalated to a supervisor, and I ended up just signing up for the NFB plan and expected my glasses to come in the mail in a week as I was told.

But I didn’t get signed up and my glasses never came. So, I texted a Aira sales rep that my husband had met at a local convention. He was very prompt and nice and did get me signed up. But another week or two went by and my glasses never came. Finally, I had Nik call customer service, and they had not sent my glasses as we suspected. But Nik was able to fix the issue and finally, my glasses came, but around 4 weeks after I signed up. So I couldn’t use Aira for a my first month, and no reimbursement was offered.)

Trying out the Aira glasses with the braille display has not worked out as well as I wanted. I do admit that although I am proficient in contracted braille, I am not speedy. Still, I have serviceable braille skills of up to 50 wpm on a good day and getting stronger every day. The problem is, when I get nervous, my braille skills sort of plummet. For example, for a long time when I would read the braille in elevators, I could do it just fine if I were alone, but when people were in the elevator watching me, it was like all my skills went out the window and I wouldn’t be able to find my floor. I eventually got so comfortable with braille in elevators that I no longer have this problem. However, I knew it was going to be a bit of an issue when getting used to the Aira interface. I figured I would just work though it, starting with very simple tasks and it would get better.

TEXT! Please, can you TEXT?

But I never really have gotten to work through it because it has been so hard to get the Aira agents to text me rather than speak to me. Aira keeps a profile of preferences of its users (or explorers, as it calls us) and I had asked for my profile to say that I am Deafblind and use braille display with text. In addition, on the Aira home screen you have two choices. You can either call Aira or start a call with a text message via the app itself. If you choose to start a call with a text message, it has a check box that can be selected that says “I can’t talk out loud right now.” My problem is just the opposite, though. I can speak orally well, but I cannot hear. So checking this box did not seem to do me any good as far as getting them to text to me.

I tried a few simple tasks at first. After several dropped calls and crashed Aira apps, I finally had some success with a minor task. I wanted to get some account numbers off some paperwork. I texted Aira and checked the box. I asked for the account numbers and tried to carefully aim my glasses at the paper at hand. I heard the glasses themselves indicate that they were taking a picture. I kept one hand on my braille display. But nothing came up. Then I put a hand on my phone. I felt and then somewhat heard the voice talking to me, but I could not understand what it was saying. I typed into my braille display, “Can you please type out the account number.” And then I felt it come up on my braille display. “Thanks!” I typed, excited, and ended the call. But I didn’t realize that when I ended the call, I lost access to my text conversation. My account number disappeared with it.

Another time, I tried to use them at the pool. I swim laps for fitness and one of the hardest things is to go into the pool (without my hearing aids so I am DEAF deafblind) and figure out who is where, is there a lane free, which lane, etc. I thought, if I can get a waterproof bag, I could bring Aira with me and they could help me. So, I came out to the pool with my little bag and sat in a chair by the door to get organized. I get out my glasses, my phone, and my braille display (and had the mifi device that goes with the glasses in the bag), and I text, “Can you text me and let me know if there is an empty lane, please start at the far right and tell me which available.” And…nothing. But I had my phone on my lap, and I felt the vibrations of the speaker. They were talking to me again. Everyone at the pool could hear the Aira agent except me. A man came up to me and grabbed my elbow gently and I could tell he meant well but it was still kind of disconcerting. He knew that I was looking for an empty lane because he had heard my whole conversation. He showed me a lane. This was nice of him but it isn’t the way Aira is supposed to work.

This ongoing issue with the lack of texting was pervasive in several situations. I never have had a completely successful text call. Because Aira requires your phone, the glasses, the mifi device, and (for me) the braille display, it is a lot to get out and get organized. The process made me less and less motivated to bother, and as these scenarios came up again and again, I found myself not choosing Aira because it just seemed like too much work. Nik and I have never come close to using up our 140 minutes.

That time it took me 3 hours to get out of the Airport…

But, one time, Aira seemed to be my only recourse. I recently attended the NFB convention in Las Vegas. Aira was a major sponsor of the convention and had advertised free service at the convention and the airport. When I asked for assistance at McCarren Airport, I was told they were too short staffed and to ask someone at the Vegas end to help when I got there. But when I got there, I found the airport to be loud with gambling machines, TV and music everywhere and very hard for me to communicate. I decided to use Aira, but with my ComPilot, a bluetooth hearing aid device that connects with my phone, rather than Braille display because I figured my braille skills would never be fast enough in this airport.

After setting up the MiFI, the phone, the ComPilot, and the glasses, I called Aira and had about a five minute wait for an agent. I had told her that I needed to get to baggage claim 5 in Terminal 3, which I had confirmed twice with the flight attendant. Then, I proceeded on well over an hour’s worth of hell.

I don’t totally blame Aira for this. I was having issues hearing BIG TIME. My ComPilot really screws with my hearing. It voids all sound location I have and makes everything reverberate in my ear and sound echo-y. I felt cut off and more impaired than normal. The airport constantly had loud music, gambling noises, announcements and ambient noise in the background. Furthermore, the Aira glasses are tinted and that cut off all of my light perception or color perception which was disorienting (it did not bother me so much in my stationary tasks). The agent kept wanting me to look down as well. I had my child with me and I was constantly feeling cut off and worried that I would lose him. I was carrying my white cane and my phone, a backpack and my kid’s hand. It was very uncomfortable, and not long into the process, I started getting a bad headache, dizziness and nausea.

I had expected that the Aira agent had a basic knowledge of the airport and could give me general directions. But she did not know the airport at all. Every few seconds, she told me to pause, pan and stop so she could take a picture of a sign. Then I had the glasses (that talk!) saying “Taking picture” in my ear which was just one more thing. She had no idea where she was going and neither did I. Maybe I was supposed to have had some basic directions before I started this call? Am I doing it wrong? I didn’t know.

So I repeatedly asked her if we could please ask someone for help or directions. I know this is not what Aira does, but I was asking for her to be a bit of an oral interpreter for me. Like, I could go up to a staff person and ask for directions, and she could listen to the directions that I couldn’t hear and then tell me what they were. She kept saying she didn’t see anyone to ask. I asked if we could go to an office or a information desk, or even a coffee stand or a store. She kept saying she didn’t see any one to ask.

She was relying on signs and was having trouble seeing the signs because they were backlit and didn’t turn out well in her pictures she was relying on. I felt like there were many, many ways we could be doing this, but she was stuck on the visual; the signs only. It seemed very one dimentional and like, how a sighted person thinks, not how a disabled person thinks. Sighted people just depend on the visual environment, disabled people combine a variety of clues, skills and methods and like a detective, put all the pieces together. I felt like all my usual methods were not available.

I have to say that she was very nice and patient, but she didn’t seem very smart. I don’t know if that is fair, but the usual pieces of info that I pull together and triangulate were not available to me as long as I was on the phone with her. Several times I wanted to fall on the floor and break down and cry. This is rare for me to be this close to a complete disability-motivated meltdown. Usually, I am up for the challenge. I wanted to hang up, but I didn’t. I don’t even know why I didn’t, except that she WAS trying and she WAS sticking with me, which can be rare sometimes. Looking back, I should have just hung up the phone, but weirdly, her voice started to feel like my only lifeline. It wasn’t, but I wasn’t thinking clearly by then.

Finally, I went rogue. My little boy was getting very impatient, and he kept telling me that he saw luggage. I knew it likely wasn’t ours, but I followed him anyway. The agent did not want me to “get off course” but I asked her if she could look up my flight and see if there was any information on what baggage claim or where it was (maybe it moved?), while she did that and reported back that she couldn’t find anything, my son told me that there was an office with staff members in it. I went in.

I asked the staff, which turned out to be United employees, about where my baggage could be. It turned out that I HAD gotten it wrong. It was 25, not 5 and they directed me to it. The Aira agent did listen to their directions and with that information was able to direct me to the right place. I want to note here that although I felt bad that I told her the wrong baggage claim number, that was only a minor part of our struggles on the call. It was not the majority problem of why we were struggling in the airport. The main issue was that neither of us had any inking of where to go and were just roaming around aimlessly looking for signs most of the time. However, without triangulating my data with the airport staff like I did, I don’t know whether we ever would have had any success. I did not understand her opposition to using all the resources available.

She was able to direct me to ground transportation, but again, if we could have asked the ground staff that is ALWAYS outside airport doors, it would have gone a lot faster. She directed me back inside the airport, up an elevator, across a sky bridge and down an elevator. Hmm, I thought. So I could have just crossed straight through outside? She called an Uber for me but told me the wrong car color, my son ended up finding the car. She was well-meaning and sincere, she was polite and patient, but I don’t know whether she was new or whether this is a usual experience.

When I got to the hotel with a very large and busy lobby, I again had trouble navigating around and went to three wrong desks before the right desk. I thought about calling Aira again, but at that point, my thought was “HELL, NO.” I was mentally and physically exhausted. It took another hour (which was mostly standing in line), but I ended up making my way to my room the old fashioned way. By pulling together clues and asking around for directions.

DeafBlind are Blind, Too!

I realize that my experiences with my hearing loss exacerbated my challenges with Aira. I also realize that Aira is a new company, experimenting with new technology, and it is to be expected that there will be bugs and that improvements will come over time.However, I didn’t understand what was really bugging me about Aira until the next day at the convention.

Aira was a big player at this convention. I like the way that Aira markets to blind people directly in a cool and modern way and not to agencies or others on our behalf. Aira was everywhere. Young, hot guys and girls in Aira T-shirts came up to me several times, inviting me to a party at a trendy nightclub (couldn’t go because of the kid, but might of!) piling on the swag, generally being a slick, sexy company that you want to be a part of. I think we deserve to be romanced a bit by a company that wants our business. I’m cool with that.

But something snapped in me after all this advertising for Aira was inescapable and everywhere. At the convention, I was almost indistinguishable from their target customer, your average blind person. But I am not just blind, I am DeafBlind, and the reality was that I was being cut out. I did not belong at the party, or with the swag or with the hot, young guys and girls in the t-shirts. They did not care about me and did not care for anything I had to say to help make the service accessible to the Deafblind, even partially. They didn’t want to deal with me.

Just a few hours after my airport fiasco, Aira spokesman Michael Hingson came to the Deafblind Division meeting to plug for Aira. It was one big, happy commercial to an audience who largely couldn’t use the service. I went up to the microphone, and I went off on a bit of an unplanned and unexpected tirade. It wasn’t so much about the fact that Aira wasn’t working with text and braille, or that you couldn’t access the text conversations after the call, or that being on the Aira call at the airport made me feel more impaired than I ever had before. It was that they had given deafblind people absolutely no means to have input on making it better. Both Nik and I had reached out to them multiple times via the contact form, via the customer service number, via the agents, via a few staff emails we had scrounged up, via facebook. And we had gotten nothing. there is no Deafblind representation on staff, there is no text support, there is not follow through on TTY or email support. They have just been ignoring us. I can deal with a new product not being quite what it needs to be for Deafblind, I have even offered to be one of its guinea pigs, but I can’t deal with the fact that we aren’t even invited to the party.

I actually think there could be a whole expanded resource by Aira for Deafblind. I think that it could be used not only with text for visual tasks, but short conversations could be interpreted into text. And Aira could be used (in small tasks) as an impromptu SSP (Support Service Person) for Deafblind. There could even be some agents who video sign for those with low vision. I think the glasses and the way the equipment is used could be optimized for Deafblind. I think they are missing an opportunity. Yes, we are low incidence. But we are here and we matter.

Herein Lies the Challenge, Aira…

Like the seasoned PR professional that he is, Michael Hingson took my rant in stride and gave me the email of the CEO and leadership to contact. I will be doing that shortly, and offering them this article. Suman, Randall, and everyone at Aira.. are you cutting edge enough to include us? Is Aira forward thinking enough and inclusive enough to even work well for the Deafblind? We are an amazing group of people and you are missing out if you don’t add us to the conversation on how to make Aira a more awesome product. I’m willing to work with you. Are you willing to work with me?



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Lisa Ferris

Lisa Ferris lives with her husband, 3 boys, 2 guide dogs and 3 guinea pigs in Portland, Oregon. She is co-owner of an adaptive technology company.