Blind and visually impaired students will have access to a new campus navigation feature through Ohio State. 

The Aira Access app, which Ohio State started offering in August, accesses a user’s phone camera, location and area satellite information to allow an agent to guide a blind or visually impaired person through campus. Nolan Crabb, director of assistive technology at the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator’s Office, said the agent helps ensure people follow COVID-19 signage and social distancing guidelines.

“The Aira agent can provide you with the directions to say, ‘Don’t move forward; you have another student in front of you and she’s close — give her a little room,’” Crabb said.

Crabb said Aira Access can even help students in the classroom.

“The agent can, if you hold your camera in the right place, literally read to you the contents of the board,” Crabb said. 

To use the app, a person opens it and presses a button that calls an agent, who can guide the user and offer warnings about possible obstacles or people nearby. Aira agents can help blind and visually impaired students scan documents to their phones for digital access and navigate webpages without screen readers and other accessibility features, Crabb said. 

Students can use the Aira Access app anywhere on campus for free, and Crabb recommends they use it in addition to another form of guidance, such as a guide dog or cane.

Caroline Karbowski, a third-year in biology and chemistry and CEO of See3D, Inc., a nonprofit organization that prints 3D models for the blind, said although she has no visual impairment, she has used Aira to help her navigate campus while blindfolded. She said by using the app, she learned skills to use when she teaches blind and visually impaired people how to use canes as part of her graduate school program.

Karbowski said the app enables blind and visually impaired people to decide when and how they want assistance rather than relying on people near them whose help may actually be harmful.

“Don’t just pull a blind person or push a blind person because they might not be always asking for help. Don’t just assume,” Karbowski said. “With Aira, [the agents] are in the mindset of, ’I’m only going to give you help with what you need.’ And when you don’t need help anymore, you just hang up the phone.” 

Karbowski said Aira is particularly helpful to prevent people from getting lost, especially in areas that are not very accessible to those who have trouble seeing. For example, many truncated domes — raised dots in front of crosswalks intended to alert blind people to street crossings — are dull or facing the wrong way and need to be replaced to prevent people from walking across the street without realizing, she said.

Kayden Gill, a third-year in health sciences and co-president of Buckeyes for Accessibility, said although Aira can help students stay 6 feet apart, the university can still do more to maintain social distancing for people who are blind or have low vision.

“OSU and all places that use those little floor stickers [for social distancing] could push towards trying to do something to make them tactile, like if you put a piece of rope underneath it in a shape of an arrow so that when you put the sticker on, it’s raised up and you can feel it,” Gill said.

The Aira Access app is available for free on iOS and Android devices.