UWM becomes 1st university in state to offer app for blind and visually impaired

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is introducing a new, free app to help blind and visually impaired people find their way around its campus and buildings. UWM is the first university in the state to offer the app. 

According to a news release from the school, the app, Aira, allows users to reach a remote, trained agent at the touch of a button to help with accessibility issues. It will be available on the university's main campus, its campuses in Waukesha and Washington County, other campus buildings such as the downtown Zilber School of Public Health and the Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa. The service can also be set up for use at university functions such as sporting events and graduation ceremonies held off campus.

Funding for the Aira service came through a grant from Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is providing seed money for one year to get the project started. The university’s Accessibility Resource Center is using the funding to pay for a subscription to the service.

Users can download the app for free to their smartphones. The app allows them to connect with a certified Aira agent in real time.

The Aira app is currently in use at the Mitchell International Airport and several Milwaukee County facilities.

The app can serve as a visual interpreter to help guide students and visitors around the campus, even when temporary barriers caused by construction or snowstorms interfere with their normal routes. It is also unobtrusive, according to Shannon Aylesworth, adaptive technology specialist at the university’s Accessibility Resource Center.

While UWM has only a small number of blind and visually impaired students, the service also opens the campus and other UWM locations and events to visitors and community members, said Aura Hirschman, chair of the university’s ADA accessibility advisory committee.

Even those who might not currently be visually impaired will benefit, said Jeb Willenbring, a UWM professor who is visually impaired himself and a member of the advisory committee.

“It’s for anyone at whatever stage of their life who has experienced some visual change that they’re trying to accommodate,” he said. “If they don’t need it now, they may in the future.”

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