A Technology Moment: Exploring the World with AIRA

By Randy Pierce

One of the recent benefits I found through the work of Future In Sight came with an outstanding technology seminar. I have the training and skills to live a meaningful and successful life for certain and still believe that we put an ever brighter Future In Sight when we keep our mind open to the many developments which can help us along the path. When I was invited along with more than 40 other sight impaired clients to attend an AIRA technology demonstration, I had only heard rudimentarily about this new product and service. The more I learned, the more impressed I became and so I was eager to join many in taking the plunge to sign up and experience the possibilities.

Woman using AIRA, wearing Goggles with a caption on the screen greeting herWhat is AIRA?

You can certainly visit their website for detailed information including their own excellent video demonstration of all aspects of the project. As I’ve just recently begun working with my own unit, I’ll share my early understanding and experience as well as commit to checking back with you in a few months to report on the progress.

It begins with a pair of smart glasses containing a 4k video camera with high resolution photo ability as well as a wifi hotspot generator to provide data transmission for the unit. These are paired with my smart phone through the AIRA application so that at a time of need I connect to the service as what they call an “explorer” (if they only knew!) to one of their O&M (orientation and mobility) trained agents at a remote location. Their agent has a computer dashboard with access to the camera view, GPS information, profile information I’ve shared on best practices and information for me.

Typically I’m wearing an “ears-free” bone conductive bluetooth headphone which allows me to hear all the ambient sound around me and communicate with my phone and the agent smoothly. They introduce themselves and inquire how they can help. It may be that I’ve encountered a handout I simply need scanned and emailed to me, or I may have been stopped on the sidewalk by a construction pit where my travel route normally would have been. Whatever the challenge I’m facing, their ability to act as my eyes allows us to interact enough to resolve many interesting challenges seamlessly.

Want to pick out raised hands for the Q&A at a school presentation? No problem! Want to find that lost ball I tossed in the bush to Autumn’s frustration? Want to read the information on the treadmill after my run? How about navigate my hotel room while traveling on my own and learning the layout? There’s so much it can do for me and I’ve only just started to scratch the surface.

A few key points I want to highlight about this excellent service. First, it is a business and so there is a cost for it monthly and while they and I hope to have that become more and more efficiently managed, the initial explorations are promising. I especially want to applaud the price they have arranged for veterans. They act as our eyes and not as our brains so we are responsible for judgments and safety — they merely provide us with additional information. They won’t be replacing Autumn or my cane, but finding ways to act in conjunction to make us more efficient.

So if you see me wearing some new sun glasses and perhaps talking to myself, I’ve probably not added new challenges to my world but rather new solutions, and I encourage you to come talk to me about it. I’m excited to learn just how much more of the world I can explore with this new technology, which is why it joins me for the expedition to Peru!


Guest blog: It’s all about access

By Rick Stevenson

This seems a fitting time for us to re-issue a 2020 guest blog post originally published two years ago on the topic of “access”–in the sense of having a level playing field so that all people, whatever their challenges or disabilities might be, are able to participate in activities they love.

Massachusetts-based non-profit Waypoint Adventure shares 2020 Vision Quest’s commitment to helping people overcome and/or work around disabilities. They are holding their annual spring fundraising party this Friday evening, March 4th in Cambridge, and Randy is the keynote speaker!

Why not come out and enjoy a chance to hear one of Randy’s keynote presentations while meeting many great people and learning about a worthy organization? Learn more and register here.

Read below a post from March 2014 about how Waypoint works in communities to create and improve access for youth and adults with disabilities.

By Rick Stevenson

Access: (n.) – the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance. (www.dictionary.com)

For our friends all around us with various disabilities, it’s all about access. It can be about other factors too, of course, but access is often a huge issue. Access to some things can be relatively simple: a home or office… a database… a person’s attention… property. But how about a mountain trail… a pristine forest near your home… a wall at a climbing gym… a glassy-calm river in summer? Are these easy for all to gain access? Unfortunately, no, not yet. That’s not as simple as adding a new wheelchair ramp or railings, but people and organizations are out there making progress.

Front L to R: Tim and Dew, in sleeping bags and on “sit-skis,” on the way down the   Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the rest of the team (Rick, Jim, Joel, Dan, Julia, Adam).
Front L to R: Tim and Dew, in sleeping bags and on “sit-skis,” on the way down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the rest of the team (Rick, Jim, Joel, Dan, Julia, Adam).

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege to be involved in two events offered by Waypoint Adventure, an eastern Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that provides life-transforming outdoor adventure programs for people with disabilities. One event was a weekend in February at Pinkham Notch, NH (at the base of Mount Washington) when eight of us ascended the Tuckerman Ravine trail toward the floor of the huge bowl. Two of the group had cerebral palsy and rode up in “sit-skis”—modified lightweight chairs mounted on pairs of cross-country skis, with ropes and bars for pulling and restraining. With an afternoon temperature of around 15 degrees F and the wind from the west howling down the trail at us, the trip up and down the famous trail was adrenaline-pumping, hard work, exhilarating and full of joy for all eight participants. Trust was critical, especially on the descent—when anything less than excellent execution would have meant too much risk—and teamwork and communication were superb.

Tim Kunzier tries out the adaptive climbing harness at the Central Rock Gym.
Tim Kunzier tries out the adaptive climbing harness at the Central Rock Gym.

The second event was a Volunteer Appreciation Night held at the Central Rock Climbing Gym in Watertown MA, at which Randy Pierce was guest speaker. About 50 current and/or future Waypoint volunteers packed a room at the gym for a great meal, brief presentations about Waypoint, and expressions of appreciation, as well as Randy’s keynote about ability awareness, goals, and how important an engaged, enthusiastic community is to a volunteer-based organization. Afterward, attendees had a chance to try out the walls of the gym and/or take a certification class in belaying.

Waypoint’s mission is to “…help youth and adults with disabilities discover their purpose, talents, and strengths through the transforming power of adventure.” They believe that all people, regardless of ability, should “…have opportunities for adventure and through them realize their personal value, strengths and abilities. These experiences will help people become stronger individuals and community members.”

Access is, almost literally, about leveling a playing field. It’s also, thankfully, about pushing the envelope of what was previously thought to be impossible, so that people of all ages with disabilities can keep having new, exciting, stimulating experiences. Problem-solving. Creative thinking. Often that’s all that stands between a person with a physical disability and a challenging, thrilling, life-changing adventure, and here’s where some of the similarities between Waypoint Adventure and 2020 Vision Quest become most obvious.

Randy Pierce, as an adventurer who happens to be blind, has a need and a strong desire for access. Access to mountain trails, road races, ski slopes, a martial arts gym, a tandem bike. He’s solving challenges every day of his life, either in teamwork with his guide dog or human guide or on his own; whether training for a road race, hiking a trail, getting around his house or around Nashua, or running 2020 Vision Quest. And in turn, one of 2020 Vision Quest’s many value-adds is helping other vision-impaired people gain access–to whatever is most special in their lives.

Then there’s Waypoint Adventure, the creator of the two events mentioned above and pictured here. Run by co-founders Adam Combs and Dan Minnich and program coordinator Julia Spruance, (one of whom, I’m proud to say, is my daughter, but I won’t reveal which one), they not only create adventure programs but also invent and fine-tune unique “access methods” that allow individuals with disabilities to enjoy many of the same adventures as others. Methods and tools like the “sit-ski” (photo above left), an off-road wheelchair, an adaptive kayak, or an adaptive rock-climbing harness. You could say they’re in the access-creation field.

A final story that helps define and illustrate access: at a 2013 indoor climbing gym event run by Waypoint for teenagers from the Perkins School for the Blind, one of the boys, after some training and a few exhilarating trips up and down the wall, asked a Waypoint volunteer if she worked at the gym.  Hearing that no, she was with Waypoint and this was a gym open to the public, he asked, “So is this a gym for blind people?” The volunteer explained that no, there were sighted people there too. Final question: “Then am I climbing on a special wall?” Upon hearing her final answer, that “…no, you’ve been climbing on the same walls as everyone else,” he lit up with a wide grin. His biggest thrill of the day—perhaps the week or month—was realizing that he had been climbing on the very same walls as everyone else.  There’s that access again. Behold and marvel at the difference it can make!

Learn more about Waypoint Adventure.


Apple for the Teacher

By Randy Pierce

A few years back, I entered the cell phone world with considerable expense and difficulty as the accessibility of cell phones was suspect at best. A few options for cell phone blind accessibility via screen readers were available for purchase at an additional $300 or more. It was frustrating to pay so much more for a phone and receive only part of the options available to the sighted.

All of that changed dramatically for the better when Apple released the iPhone with a speech option, “Voice Over”, built in standard to the operating system. Suddenly, at no additional cost, blind users would have the vast majority of options accessible to them on a high-end smartphone.

It’s been several years and access has continued to improve. The Android phones have two options which are closing in on being as accessible as the iPhone and creating competitive options for the blind users to reap the benefits of mainstream access. The power and potential continues to grow on both platforms.

As a phone, the blind-accessible functions are talking caller ID; a feature-rich address book for names, numbers, and addresses; as well as the very powerful accessibility of all forms of internet searches for phone numbers. In virtually any location, I’m a couple of finger swipes away from finding any business or residential number I wish to call!

The power of all the built-in applications includes GPS navigation, a compass, clocks, alarms, and an assortment of bells and whistles (figuratively for the most part) to empower me to greater life organization and interaction with the world.

Web browsing, email, and other accessible forms of social media enable blind users to re-integrate with a social world that was leaving them far behind before they had begun to even use the simple tools of text messaging (also fully accessible now).

To serve millions of sight-impaired users, the app stores are catching up with ever more powerful tools to augment and enhance many tasks. Ebook readers (no thanks to Amazon), podcasts, audiobooks, color identifiers, text readers, barcode scanners, dictation applications, and more fill up the screens of users who share their discoveries in places like www.applevis.com.

It is not entirely perfect by any means–some designers do not follow the app creation guidelines, which results in applications that do not work with the built-in speech software. Sometimes they end up making it more difficult by requiring the manual labeling of buttons and images that a user needs to understand for optimum interaction with the tool. Still, there are an abundance of options and methods to continually and improve the tools available and continually make life easier.

While it is often easy to focus upon the failings or shortcomings of various aspects of accessibility, it is an absolute delight to find this fantastic example of how much has been done right. Thank you to Apple and to Google for their trendsetting work and the resulting benefit to so many. Drop me a line if you care to know more about my favorite applications for making life easier.

If you are feeling brave and want to explore a bit of the means by which I interact with the smartphone world, take a tour through your phone’s accessibility settings and turn on the voiceover feature. Your phone will change dramatically and you’ll have a learning curve, but for me that has been tremendously rewarding. When you become more familiar with it, do what I learned to do and shut off the screen as unnecessary and make that battery power last… and last… and last! There are some fine advantages to this blindness on occasion!


Touch Screens: Accessible, Usable, Astounding

by Randy Pierce

“No offense, Randy, but how in the world are you going to use a touch screen given your total blindness?” I’ve heard that question a few times already, despite barely owning my iPhone for a week, and still the truth is even more amazing than I anticipated! Touch screen technology has not enhanced the barriers but has instead introduced an entirely new and powerful means of accessibility.

Adaptive Technology is a mixed blessing in that the powerful options are incredible, but so too is the cost, given the restricted market for such things. Speech technology has added thousands of dollars to the cost of items in the past, yet as our world of technology strives toward “eyes-free” for the benefit of drivers, (primarily) the results are clear. In the case of my iPhone, accessibility and usability are both highly available using just the pre-installed features! No additional cost is fantastic, but the reality of the potential is the greater achievement. The Android platform is not far behind, though full accessibility is not present with their Talk Back program. The expectations have been set, however, and most devices will begin to come standard with this new approach.

Randy using his new iPhone

Voice Over is the installed accessibility feature on every iPhone (Settings, General, Accessibility), which converts the phone to a means of interacting non-visually. Touch any point on the screen and the phone speaks the name of the Icon or feature present at that location. A single finger flick, left or right, and it advances through the options back and forth with ease. There’s a vast array of easy-to-learn hand gestures that bring the power of the product to life. Even the on-screen, touch-typing keyboard seems a quickly learned and mastered process! The impressive number of accessible applications can quickly enhance the device as a money reader, text scanner, color identifier, and GPS system – at no or minimal additional costs.

I spent a bit more than a month following some online discussions about the product before making the plunge, as my previous Smartphone slowly began to fail me. As such, I found the learning curve tremendously quick and discovered the most powerful aspect of this new technology. As a blind person, the delivery of information is always linear through a screen reader. We get an intricately displayed visual page as a series of single points without any appreciation for the impact of the layout. I may be told that a row across the top has a list of headline options, or similarly, a column down either side of the screen, but understanding the reason for the layout has previously been lost upon me. Things are placed with a prominence, which has meaning for usability. Now, due to the touch screen alerting of actual location points, a blind user can benefit from the size and location of any item in a way that is very close to a sighted user’s experience. We can also skip the fine print with ease just like our sighted counterparts. Do you think that’s a small detail? Imagine the clutter all across your Facebook page and how quickly your eye can focus on the significant details. Finally, we have a means to do so, and it’s all built into this powerful device!

It would be an extensive report to share all of the power and revolutionary change brought to us by this advance in technology. I’ll spare that extensive detail for this post and note that many of my blind and sighted contacts shared my apprehension on the accessibility of touch screen technology. As with nearly everything, awareness, education, and exploration have demonstrated that change, in this instance, may indeed be a tremendous benefit!


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