Stories on Being Black and Blind
Multiple barriers can exist for someone who is both blind and part of a minority group. These characteristics intersect to form a person’s identity and can negatively impact perception of oneself, especially self-confidence and independence. Assistive technology like Aira’s visual interpreting cannot remove the barriers, but it can mitigate their impact, enabling people to live more productive, independent, and dignified lives. Hear what a few of our Explorers and Aira Agents have to say about their experiences.
Using Aira to Assist Her Mother During COVID
Cassandra Jones, an Explorer for approximately four years, has used Aira at home for brief tasks ranging from checking the water level in her coffee maker, reading labels, checking mail, to assistance with color coordination of her business attire. But in 2020, Aira’s remote assistance from Agents became particularly “invaluable” to her.
“That was when my dad died from COVID, and my mom also had COVID, which required me after my dad’s funeral to move back home to take care of my mother at her residence for two months,” Cassandra recalls. “During that time I used Aira there to do such things as the laundry, read the washing machine/dryer, as well as use the oven and dishwasher. These are things that would not be an issue if I could see, but with Aira I was able to do them with no problem to assist my mom.”
Cassandra, who has been totally blind most of her life due to a detached retina which occurred at about the age of 9, is Director of Disability Services at Xavier University in Cincinnati where she has also used Aira assistance in her work. “I particularly like knowing I can call Aira to have someone read something or help me figure out something that I can’t visually see,” she says. “And you can get this assistance when you need it, not having to wait for someone else. This greatly enhances my productivity and independence in daily life.”
It is also reassuring for her to know that “Aira’s Agents are highly trained professionals which increases the trust level as you essentially invite them into your home to assist you with a wide range of important and personal activities.”
She would encourage other blind and low vision individuals to consider Aira, especially first trying the option that allows new users to try the service for free at 5 minute intervals, giving them a great cost-saving opportunity to explore the various ways they can use the service.
A ‘Liberating’ Experience
An Aira Explorer since 2018, Maurice Crittendon is a Talent Acquisition and Special Event Management professional in the Washington, DC area. Before joining Aira he spent considerable time out of work after receiving a transplant of his kidney and pancreas due to Type I diabetes, which was a contributing factor in his vision loss. Now employed as a Talent Acquisition Specialist for NSITE, a newly formed offshoot of National Industries for the Blind (NIB), Maurice finds that Aira’s assistive technology and services, delivered to users via Aira Agents, not only boost his productivity on the job but also his personal confidence at home and in other aspects of daily life – an experience he calls ‘very liberating.’
He first heard of Aira from a good friend and later became convinced to join when he met an Aira representative at an NIB-sponsored event. “I had such a great conversation there with Aira, I decided to give it a try, so I soon clicked on the link my friend had sent me earlier and signed up,“ Maurice remembers. In addition, he says, getting acclimated to using Aira and interacting with Aira Agents was an easy process.
“The first time I opened up my Apple phone to use the Aira app and service, I found that the app was simple and easy to use, everything was spelled out on the instruction page. I was originally allotted 30 minutes of service and when that was gone I immediately began looking into paid plans because I saw the value of the service.”
Different Ways I Use Aira: “In my job, personal appearance, including clothes and presentation is key, so I use Aira in different ways – from putting an outfit together, feeling confident in what I am wearing and being able to step out confidently, to catching a Lyft for ridesharing; assistance at work with conducting virtual tours and video meetings; editing documents (including spreadsheets) using TeamViewer; locating and navigating new buildings; scanning food labels at the grocery store, and managing/changing my personal banking information at home. Aira is a trusted source for this information.”
Agent interaction: “Liberating”: I pull up the app when I need something to be described to me. Doing that just allows me to feel a bit more free, not having to rely on asking [other] people. Particularly I like clothes and shoes, so asking an Agent: “Hey does this match with this, or ‘How does this look?’ Using the Agents for assistance has increased and if I had to give it a word to describe it, it would be ‘liberating’, very liberating in the sense that I can call a trusted party and this trusted party would give to me the information that I need…and there are a ton of great agents I have interacted with and I’ve really have not had any bad experiences.”
Accessibility Benefits Everyone
Blind since age four and based in London, UK, Explorer Andre Louis has been playing the piano for over thirty years, becoming known for his strong talent as a session keyboardist, including performing live, composing and releasing his own music. At Aira, he is also known as the creator of the Aira ringtone, the catchy dial tone music used in the company’s Customer care phone system. You could say he lives up to his reputation as a self-proclaimed “tech geek” in using the latest in technology to enhance his music.
In this creative process, he uses Aira services to assist when needed. “Aira Agents have been very helpful in visually guiding me through certain accessibility problems with technical equipment,” says Andre, who joined Aira in 2018. Adept in his own right in the realm of digital devices, he calls Aira at least once a month, says Wendell Hennessy, Agent Analyst. “The agents look forward to his calls, because he’s always doing something interesting and creative.” This was certainly the case when Louis created the Aira ringtone with assistance in part from Aira services. “That tone is now iconic, reports Jenine Stanley, Director, Aira Customer Communication. “I also use it as a break between segments in the Aira podcast. Great stuff. And also often use his free music as a bed or filler.”
In addition, Andre is one of the first artists to test run new accessibility features for the prominent music technology innovator Native Instruments and its range of keyboards with touch-sensitive rotary encoders and auditory feedback functionality built in. This technology has been hailed by leading visually-impaired musicians as “game-changing” and “revolutionary”.
Andre, impressed and inspired by Aira’s mission of bringing accessibility to all, is heartened to know that there are companies beginning to understand that accessibility isn’t just for some segments of the marketplace or population. As he says: “When companies like Aira build accessibility into their products, it benefits more than just a minority of persons. Everyone benefits.”
Listen to the soundtrack Andre created around the Aira Ringtone
Other Andre Music Samples
Providing Equal Access to Visual Information Has an Impact on Explorers, Their Community and Beyond
It was January 2019 and Shaela, having just given birth to her daughter, was searching for a job that she could do from home. “In a nutshell,” she recalls, “I was not ready to go back to an in-person, typical 9-5 job.” It was about then that she ran across the job description for an Aira Agent position. “I was more than a little intrigued. I was previously working with people who were deaf and felt drawn to a position that, again, allowed me to help people in important, empowering ways.”
After joining Aira, “I haven’t looked back since,” says Shaela, who now generally serves as an Agent out of Maryland (sometimes on the Eastern Shore or in the Baltimore area), but has also agented from Jamaica, Texas, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
In the following interview, Shaela talks candidly about the joys and challenges of her work in assisting Aira Explorers gain increased independence, mobility and productivity in daily life. This includes Aira’s mission to help bring these services to blind and low vision users in underserved communities.
What excites you about being an Agent, and what accomplishments are you especially proud of in your work?
I get excited by the possibility of each day. I love the variation in my day and the knowledge that every unique task completed is genuinely helping someone. I am so proud to say that I work for Aira. My proudest call moment so far has been with an Explorer — which was this Explorer’s first assistive call with Aira. On that call, he/she was really interested in how navigating with Aira worked. By the end of the call, we had navigated to his/her mailbox and back, a task he/she had never done alone. Oh my goodness! I literally have no idea what to expect when I log in for “work” as an Agent. I have read mail, helped find dropped Airpods, located poop in a yard, navigated airports in both the US and abroad, navigated to the mall, read cooking instructions, described Zoo and Aquarium exhibits, described makeup colors, troubleshooted computer programs and even described a wedding. It means the world to me to know that I and Aira make such a difference in Explorers’ lives.
What would you say are the key challenges of your job?
One of my biggest challenges is the world’s lack of accessibility. There is so much information that is simply unavailable to the Explorers. There are so many websites and applications that are inaccessible to screen readers, pedestrian signals that are not audible, clothing/makeup names that do not tell you what color it is, and buses that do not have an audible notification of the number or stop. The world is just not set up to provide an equitable life experience to everyone. Aira is working incredibly hard to remedy that.
Why is it important for Aira to reach out more to diverse communities, including African Americans and Latinos with blindness and low-vision? What ultimate or potential impact will this have not only on Aira’s mission but on the users it serves?
It is vitally important to reach out to those communities because they matter. When Aira puts effort and resources into helping the people of those communities become independent, confident, and comfortable, Aira is helping rebuild the dignity of those Explorers. I think it should be as simple as that. Providing visual information to people who are blind or low vision should be important to everyone. But, while the rest of the world catches up, Aira reaching out shows that providing equal access to visual information is important to them and that Aira understand the impact this can have on an individual, their community and beyond.
As an Agent, do you feel there are any particular needs or challenges that Explorers in socioeconomic underserved communities face as blind or low-vision individuals? And how is Aira and its Agents uniquely positioned to assist with these needs?
In my experience, the Explorers who reside in underserved communities especially have many things that challenge their ability to live life to the standards of those that are sighted. One that comes to mind immediately is the ability to navigate their area safely and efficiently. Often the surrounding areas are under construction and there’s a lot of visual information necessary to simply get from point A to point B. Aira is uniquely positioned to support the Explorer in navigating independently whereas they may not have felt comfortable/able previously. Being able to confidently navigate to your neighborhood drug store for prescriptions or to go to/through a Target to buy essentials is so important. Aira offers people their independence and often helps build the Explorers confidence that they can have the life they want with less limits.
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