Free Technology To Help The Blind Navigate Milwaukee Airport, Other Locations

Nov 21, 2018

Thousands of people will leave from, or arrive at, Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Getting through a crowded terminal is tough enough at peak times, but imagine if you were blind or with low vision. 

At Mitchell, there's now free technology to help those individuals move through the airport. And, more Milwaukee County buildings may soon have the same service. 

The service is called Aira.

It works like this: people sign up through an app, use a smartphone camera or wear special glasses with a tiny camera in the frame, and talk by phone to a sighted Aira employee in another city who watches the video stream and helps steer the traveler through the building. 

During a demonstration of the service Tuesday, an Aira agent named Bailey guided fellow employee Greg Stilson, as he stood at a podium wearing his smart glasses.

Stilson said into his phone: "Hey Bailey, I am doing a media event at the Milwaukee Mitchell Airport, and I'm wondering if you can kind of give me just a brief description of what this room looks like and what's kind of around me here?”

Bailey replied: "Let's see, it looks like there's a sign that says Concourse D over there. There's also a CNBC  Newsstand to your right."

Aira has been at Mitchell for a while, with subscribers paying about $2 for each minute they use the service. But now Milwaukee County is footing the bill, so it's free for customers. County Executive Chris Abele says the county should be doing so because “government exists to serve everybody."

Abele says Mitchell is the first airport in Wisconsin or Illinois to offer Aira for free. And other Milwaukee County facilities may soon offer the service at no charge, he adds.

Tim Ochnikowski, who directs the county's Office For Persons With Disabilities, says he's close to making a deal with Aira regarding several sites. 

“In some areas where way-finding is difficult like the Courthouse, the Coggs Human Services Building, the War Memorial. We're going to offer it at the Boerner Gardens — where they have some beautiful outside trails — the Wehr Nature Center and the Zoo. I mean, it's a big, daunting place where somebody now could go independently.

And of course,” Ochnikowski added, “We gotta do the beer gardens, so if somebody wants to just hang out, they should have an opportunity to do that."

Ochnikowski says the expansion may cost about $5,000 and could start at the indoor locations by December.

Sarah Heesen speaks at Tuesday's news conference.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Aira subscriber Sarah Heesen is glad to hear about the expansion possibility. Heesen is blind and a board member of ABLE, the Audio and Braille Literacy Enhancement service based at the downtown Milwaukee Library. 

"I'm a mom and have a 6-year-old. He also has my eye condition. I'm looking forward to walking through the zoo with him, actually. It'll definitely be a different experience," Heesen told WUWM.

Milwaukee County estimates there are tens of thousands of local residents who are blind or with low vision, who may want to team up with their far-away, sighted guide.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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