I’d like to think that I’m used to living my life with eyes that don’t work well (or, truth be told, at all). I’ve now lived 37 years on this planet with some degree of visual impairment; even when I could see, my spatial awareness was all wrong, and I could never really tell the difference between blue and green unless it was BLUE and GREEN (substitute “red” and “orange”, and you get the idea). Overall, I’ve made my peace with it. I’m a homeowner. I have two cats and a guide dog that I adore, and a partner who makes sure I don’t get stuck inside my own head. My life also includes a new job that I love, a diverse group of friends, and access to tons of technological advances that have made my life even more convenient.
Because, make no mistake about it, blindness can be, at times, extremely inconvenient.
I don’t spend a ton of time worrying about all the things I can’t see; my life is both too full and – at times – I’m devoting large amounts of time to combatting ableism, raising lowered expectations, and deciphering true compliments from backhanded ones. It’s not the “big things” that make my life more complicated – not seeing the faces of my loved ones, not experiencing travel visually – since I have tons of ways I can enjoy the energy of time with dear friends and family, or the sounds and smells and vibe of visiting a new city. It’s the little things that are frustrating – how can I activate my new credit card? How far up the block is the new bus stop? What restaurants are in which order in this mall food court?
Today I am revisiting Aira. I’ve written about them before, and while much has changed, so much has stayed the same. I still have a hard time with their customer service model, but it is still a valuable tool in my toolbox.
What is Aira?
Aira is, in effect, an app that connects you with on-demand visual assistance. Think of it as Uber for eyesight. The agents are hired and paid by Aira, but we subscribers pay for the service to be available on demand. When I first wrote about Aira, they had hands-free connectivity to a pair of glasses, which has since been discontinued. Now, it’s strictly a phone app.
What’s it For?
I can go months where I only use their short (free) tasks, just because I only need a set of eyes to make sure my outfit doesn’t clash badly. Or I’ve run into an inaccessible calendar online and need someone to select a date for my next big trip, or to confirm my identity for a new financial institution. However, for longer tasks I have used Aira to find the location of the new bus stop when the city brought in new bus routes. I’ve used it when traveling in new areas when the directions in my head didn’t match the directions on my phone. Though I did stop using the app for about a year due to technical issues with my old phone, since I upgraded my phone last year, it’s been a big help in those moments where five minutes talking with an agent saved me untold amounts of frustration.
The one thing that Aira has done more successfully than other apps and services (which I will write about later) is train their agents in how to provide verbal directions. many experienced agents are old hats at describing areas virtually – even using google maps while I’m sitting on my couch! – and using landmarks that would be useful when I would be visiting the area myself. Phrases such as “I need you to angle your phone to the left and up about an inch” is more useful information than “I can’t quite see the sign, can you… um… move your phone… up?… No, the other way?” (isn’t “up” just one way?)
Like all tools in the blindness toolbox (of which I hold many), Aira is a very useful one. Even in areas with limited mobile connectivity, in general I find the agents helpful, empathetic, and competent. Even with some minor hiccups, and their ongoing customer service issues, at this point in my life, paying for a set of working eyes is worth the investment.