Impaired, Not Helpless: How One Startup is Rethinking Disability Assistance Technology

By Akudo McGee 6 Min Read

When someone mentions the word disability, you likely don’t think about things like needing eyeglasses or having arthritis. This is because perceptions of who is and isn’t disabled are heavily influenced by how common an issue is and how likely it is to affect one’s life or well-being. This perception of disability is also determined by how well one can do their job and perform daily actions with little or no assistance and while it is chiefly determined by those who are not disabled, both groups place emphasis on having and maintaining a well-functioning existence.

In previous decades, treatments for those with disabilities were focused on live-in assistance and possible medical intervention; however, today the focus is on helping people live fuller lives and retain as much independence as possible. The California-based startup Aira is one of many organizations working to create a real impact on the lives of those living with disabilities. Aira developed what they call "remote assistance technology and services" which allow the blind and visually impaired to maintain a higher level of mobility, autonomy and hopefully confidence as well.

While their approach is novel, this isn’t a new issue. According to the National Federation of the Blind, an estimated 1.3 million people in the United States alone are legally blind. Annually 75,000 people become blind or visually impaired in the United States and as many as 10 million Americans are already blind or visually impaired. Perhaps the most unfortunate side of these statistics is that 70 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed, and non-visual access to computer technology is a growing issue. This means that not only are daily activities like communicating with others or accessing information restricted but also that many who are blind are unable to work. Working means much more than income, to some it means self-sufficiency, a source of pride and a way to express dedication to their passions.

Where does Aira come in? Aira created wearable, wireless technology that assists the blind and those with low vision with everything from job hunting to reading a book. Aira provides a network of professions for their clients to assist them with daily tasks. The network can be accessed through their wearable technology (smart glasses), their mobile app or both. Users can get started by calling an agent at the tap of a finger using either their mobile app or their smart glasses. They will then be connected with an agent who can provide them with assistance in real time.

Any time users need assistance, they can tap their smart glasses on the side to initiate a session with an agent. The glasses, which are powered by the AT&T Priority Network link clients via direct video feed to a certified agent who becomes the visual interpreter for the client. The agent can see where the client is located on Google Maps as well as what’s in front of the clients’ glasses. The video cameras in the client’s smart glasses enable the agent to guide their movements, whether that be rerouting their morning jog or helping them hop on the correct bus or train.

The agent isn’t just there to help clients with navigation; they can assist clients with other tasks like reading mail or reviewing restaurant menu options. In fact, agents have a social dashboard for each client which allows them to access a client’s details, like their Facebook friends or what kinds of foods and hobbies clients like. This information can be used for tasks like letting a client know when their friend is waiting for them or approaching or advising them on restaurants and menu options.

Once the agent has finished assisting the client, the client can tap their glasses to end the session and use the same smart glasses to rate their experience with the agent. Rating can be done simply by moving one’s finger up or down the glasses to indicate a one- or five-star experience.

What about pricing? All packages include the glasses, data, insurance for hardware, a training session and access to agents from 1pm to 7am CEST. The prices start at $89 for the basic package and go up to $329 for the Premium package, and the major difference between the packages is the number of minutes that are included with them.

Aira is more than a company, they also market themselves as an assistive community whose goals are to better the daily lives of people who are blind or have low vision. Their social media presence is proof of their passion and dedication to ensuring that those with disabilities aren’t limited to who they can be or what they experience. Startups like Aira could help blind and low vision people everywhere step outside in confidence, go to that job interview, do more at home, or finish that book that’s been collecting dust.

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