Sometimes when I am overstimulated or overwhelmed, I lose my ability to process visual information. This can be as “simple” as not being able to read anymore, or as advanced as full blown dissociation where I cannot place myself in space and time and cannot navigate in any environment.
There is new technology out there developed for the blind and low vision community that may be able to help people like me. It is technology called Aira (pronounced “EYE-ruh”). Aira connects users (“explorers”) to agents who are sighted via an internet connection. The agents view the explorer’s environment via a video camera on or attached to their cell phone, and describe to the explorer what is in their environment and help them navigate. It can be used to get from one place to another, to read a menu or job application, to get on the right bus, and many other uses.
My friend Jenine Stanley and her guide dog Roger work for Aira. After hearing about my troubles, she suggested using Aira to assist me when I am overstimulated instead of not being able to order something at a restaurant, or having to find a corner and sit and wait for my visual processing ability to return before leaving a situation or heading home. (As an aside, I trained my first service dog to take me from my office to the train station, get me on the right train, get me off at the right stop, and lead me home when I dissociated– however I don’t think Hestia is intelligent enough for this, and in the past few years I’ve most had issues with reading instead of navigating.)
This week, we are at the American Council of the Blind conference in Rochester, NY and Aira is providing free service! So I tried it out. Brad videotaped me as I closed my eyes and let an Aira agent guide me through the convention center. I know this is not a real test of the technology for my purpose, as I was not overstimulated, but it was the best analog I could come up with to see what it would be like.
My agent was extremely helpful, and kindly guided me out of a couple of times where I walked into things. Just to be clear, Aira is intended to be a complement to a guide dog or stick/cane. It’s not meant to replace them as a complete way to navigate your environment.
The signal in the hotel is poor, so I did lose contact with her in the elevator and again for a short time near the end of the call. But it was very helpful! I can definitely see how this could be a huge boon to people with sensory processing disabilities of all sorts who have difficulties with visual information—especially if they are still able to minimally navigate and not run into things, but just need some simple direction to get something done (kind of using the agent’s brain more than their eyes!). I hope that Aira continues to develop their services for this part of the disability community– and with Jenine there, I am sure they will!
Aira is often offered for free in many airports to assist with wayfinding, so there are places to try it out. It is pretty affordable. There’s a 7-day free trial and the lowest cost is $29 a month for 30 minutes, outside of free Aira zones.
Check out our video about this amazing new technology, and the even newer use of the technology! (I’m not paid by Aira, by the way!)