KALAMAZOO, Mich.—As a blind graduate assistant at Western Michigan University, Alicia Marques navigates obstacles using a white cane, formats papers with the help of an audible screen reader and even cooks dinner safely by keenly identifying the sounds and smells around her.
For instances when her visual aids or senses are not enough, Western has provided a sighted assistant to help.
This fall, the University became the first institution in the state to take assisting the visually impaired to the next level, providing live person-to-person help instantly and at any time on any campus property through a phone or computer.
Western launched this service through Aira (EYE-rah) to give people who are visually impaired who live, work or visit a WMU campus more independence, says Jayne Fraley-Burgett, director of Disability Services for Students.
“When a student is blind, they have accessible materials. What a screen reader can’t read, we get a sighted aide to help with. But the logistics aren’t always easy,” she says. “Aira takes away any barrier of delay and provides sighted help with a quick call through an app. There is a significant amount of comfort that comes from that independence and accessibility.”
“It has been a game changer,” adds Marques, who lives with her husband, Victor Marques, M.A.’21, who is also visually impaired. “Before the app, I would have had to wait to get a sighted reader. Now, I pull out my phone and call Aira.”
It’s a “tool in our toolbox” she continues. “The agents don’t replace our independence, but Aira makes it more convenient and easier.”
How it works
Aira is a free downloadable iOS or Android phone or desktop app that requires an email account. Once the app is engaged, a call will be directed to a trained visual interpreter at no cost to the user through WMU’s subscription 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s available in English, Spanish or French.
Virtual agents around the world are available to view surroundings or documents when the user shares their smartphone camera or screen-shares on a computer. Access to a phone camera or computer screen allows agents to relay what they see back to the individual. Using GPS, these agents can also determine the user’s location and give directions and building information.
Some common activities agents can help with are sorting mail or papers, finding a seat on a bus, guiding a user to the end of a line, following directions or arranging a ride-share. The agents don’t provide tutoring but will read printed instructions. They can describe your surroundings but will not give instructions that might put a person in danger, such as if it is safe to cross a street.
First-year student Jisu Lee says access to Aira was a welcomed discovery when she arrived at WMU in the fall from South Korea. Lee, who is blind, says agents have helped her not only with homework but also can relay the colors of her outfits and confirm if items match before heading out.
“I have help in Valley Dining (from staff) to get a plate or find a table, but I call Aira to sort my mail, pick out what I am wearing,” she says, adding she’s also taken Aira agents into Miller Auditorium. “It is very helpful because if I didn’t have Aira, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going out to some places.”
Where to use Aira for free
The service is available at no cost to the user on any Western property, including its Main, Parkview and East campuses, Kleinstuck Preserve in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek Aviation Center and WMU-Grand Rapids.
Students who live off campus are allowed to use the Aira app for free for five minutes every 48 hours. Additionally, University students who need assistance outside of WMU properties can schedule a certain number of hours to use Aira at no cost through the Office of Disability Services for Students.
Other partners that support use of the app at no cost include McDonald’s, Starbucks, Meijer, Target and the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
“We are bringing access to our institution for everyone who wants to come here,” says Fraley-Burgett, adding there are currently about 45 visually impaired students enrolled at WMU. “It’s really just being someone’s eyes. Most students who are blind or visually impaired already know about Aira, and they have a lot of knowledge about how it helps. WMU can now make it available to anyone who visits us at any time.”
Learn more about Aira at aira.io.
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.