Out in the Open·Video

The promise and pitfalls of assistive technologies for people with visual impairments

Visually impaired users of assistive technologies say apps, gadgets and other innovations go a long way, but broader measures to enhance accessibility would be better.

Apps and gadgets designed to help visually impaired people can improve users’ quality of life ー at a cost

Chelsea Mohler says that paying for a tech service like Aira eliminates the power imbalance that comes with asking others for help. (Submitted by Chelsea Mohler)
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Born with a vision impairment, Chelsea Mohler is accustomed to using assistive technologies. But in recent years, one particular innovation has offered a new kind of help with tasks such as taking an Uber, ordering a coffee or picking out an outfit.

Aira is a paid service that provides blind and low vision individuals with telephone access to agents who describe users' surroundings to them in real time.

In Mohler's case, an Aira agent is able to tell her what they're seeing by way of her cellphone camera, which she straps to her chest.

"It's been pretty life-changing," Mohler told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

When sacrificing personal privacy is worth it

Of course, inviting a paid agent somewhere in North America to watch your every move means kissing much of your privacy goodbye. While Aira is active, users' phones transmit not just video, but also data from other apps like Uber and Lyft. Location information is collected and screen sharing is routine.

But users like Mohler say the service provided is well worth it.

"What I love about it is that it's a paid service and… there's an expectation when you pay for help that it's of a certain quality."

Watch a video feed of Chelsea Mohler using Aira as she makes her way to the CBC building in Toronto:

Chelsea Mohler is visually impaired ー but uses Aira, a paid service that provides blind and low vision individuals with telephone access to agents who describe users' surroundings to them in real time. 5:16

To help mitigate concerns around privacy, Aira offers a "privacy mode" function, which allows users to pause their assigned agent's access to device video and audio. When they're ready to resume the call, they can deactivate this feature. For example, a user might activate "privacy mode" while changing into clothes that an Aira agent helped them pick out.

Mary Fernandez, an Aira user from New Jersey, says the app's agents do an excellent job of maintaining professional boundaries and that their around-the-clock accessibility has helped facilitate her return to school.

"As a graduate student, you don't keep normal hours," she said. "Aira reduces the amount of help that you need from other people and gives you the ability to get that help at whatever time and place you need it."

The unanticipated costs of assistive technologies

What does concern Fernandez is cost. Aira users pay between $99 and $329 US per month, depending on how many minutes they use. Right now, Fernandez's university is footing that bill and she hopes an employer might one day do the same. But she says for a lot of people, that's simply out of reach.

"That's extremely prohibitive considering that the majority of blind people in the United States are unemployed."

Although Aira has been a great service for many of Mary Fernandez's practical needs, she hopes that accessibility issues within workplace and education spaces in the U.S. are addressed sooner rather than later. (Gabby H. Park)

A 2018 report from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind states the unemployment rate - defined as those who are not working but have been looking for work within the last four weeks - among people with sight loss to be 15.8 per cent, or approximately triple that of the general population. It found the full-time employment rate of the aforementioned group to be 28 per cent.

From glasses that capture video and display it on high-resolution screens directly in front of users' eyes, to apps that help identify objects and text captured in photos, technological solutions to low vision are everywhere.

But like Aira, many of these interventions are costly and rely on the innovations of individual developers or cash-strapped startups.

In January, Albert Ruel, an advisor to the Canadian Council of the Blind, warned CBC's On the Coast that the proliferation of assistive technologies has led to reduced interest in comparatively accessible solutions such as braille, which don't rely on voice technology, phones, smart glasses and other gadgetry.

Wouldn't it be great if I could have a more inclusive experience in my job, and within education, and use Aira for more enriching experiences like going hiking?​​​​- Mary Fernandez, Aira user

Meanwhile, legislative efforts to make accessibility the norm are faltering.

In Ontario, where Mohler lives, a report done in March recently found that the province's now 14-year-old Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Among other concerns, its author — former Ont. Lieutenant Governor David Onley — flagged that many organizations are struggling to meet accessibility standards when it comes to website design.

Fernandez says the same is true of the U.S., where persistent issues of inaccessibility create a need for interventions like Aira where there shouldn't be one.

"I don't want to put Aira out of business, but wouldn't it be great if I could have a more inclusive experience in my job, and within education, and use Aira for more enriching experiences like going hiking?"

'There's not a power imbalance'

Despite the costs and occasional frustrations, Mohler and Fernandez agree that Aira has transformed their lives for the better, particularly since it helps mitigate some of the social difficulties associated with asking for and receiving help.

"It's different than [asking] a friend because there's not a power imbalance," Mohler explained. "You're paying for the service. It's their job to assist you. And of course they want to do their job and do it well because they probably want to keep it."

Mohler says that navigating the world as a blind person means dealing with a lot of assumptions — about whether you need help, what kind of help you need, and when you're perfectly fine on your own.

She says Aira takes some of those assumptions out of the equation.

"Let's find ways that we can receive assistance in an empowering way."


With files from CBC News. This story was written in conjunction with the Out in the Open episode "Support Systems".

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story misstated a Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) finding that the unemployment rate of blind or partially-sighted people of working age is about 70 per cent. In fact, the CNIB's report stated the unemployment rate - defined as those who are not working but have been looking for work within the last four weeks - among the aforementioned group is 15.8 per cent.
    Jun 14, 2019 9:48 AM ET

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