Post Title:   AIRA AIMS TO PUT ‘A BREEZE’ IN SHOPPING MOBILITY.

THE INVITATION.

I received an email from the Sight Center of NWPA to test out a new program called AIRA at Wegman’s Grocery, in Erie, PA.  The grocery chain first invited the team from the Sight Center, who kindly extended the invitation to me, too.

The team from the Sight Center included the CEO, the Public Relations director and a guide dog user, who leads a couple of Sight Support groups at the center. I traveled independently to the store, but we arrived at roughly the same time.

My brother dropped me off. We agreed for him to pick me up an hour later. In my hand I carried a short list of specialty items I had been wanting to purchase for some time. In the lobby, we all met up with store managers.  We split up into 2-3 groups.

I learned that Wegman’s was the first grocery chain to use this application to make shopping more accessible to their low vision and blind shoppers. Linda Lovejoy, community relations manager at Wegman’s headquarters states, “At Wegmans, we are committed to providing incredible customer service to all our shoppers and finding ways to make our stores accessible to everyone.”

I was so pleased with their initiative. New technology and apps are coming out more frequently now, but in order to take full advantage of these advances, businesses need to care about their customers and to have strong leadership to move forward.

WHAT IS AIRA?

AIRA is an app accessed through an iPhone, which many vision-impaired individuals already own. Although I sometimes struggle with technology, I found it easy to connect the app with the individual who would guide me remotely through the store.

A store manager accompanied me through the facility, more out of curiosity to see a real-life application of the program. She did not guide me at all. Once the remote operator and I exchanged first names, we were off in search of the items on my list.

picture of Wegmans Almond milk, powdered peanut butter, chia seeds and yogurt

I found out right away I needed more hands. I had to push the cart, carry my purse, which kept slipping down to my elbow, guide myself with a white cane and carry my cell phone up in the air so the remote operator could see me and the shelving through my iPhone.

It was quite difficult to push the cart.  I am not sure why I reached for a full cart since it’s hard to push, and I usually have to turn it around to pull it to avoid crashing into someone I can’t see ahead of me. Anyway, I traded out the cart for a basket halfway through the shopping expedition.

Even so, the manager helped out and carried the basket so I could keep my iPhone up in the air and guide myself with my white cane.

I felt like I needed to be an octopus with eight arms!

But our trip took longer too because the quest for non-sweetened vanilla almond milk took the remote guide longer to find. She had a map of the store on her end but it wasn’t quite where it was supposed to be. To speed up the process, the manager went to retrieve the almond milk for me.

I marveled how the guide also steered me around another shopper in the aisle! So, not only was she able to help me navigate to find the specialty groceries, she helped me avoid embarrassing collisions. This is something I struggle with often. If my cane collides with another shopper’s cart, typically the other individual apologizes to me, even though it is my fault! The innocent shopper probably wants to say, “Watch where you’re going!” But when they see my white cane, they seem mortified. I just loved having another set of eyes through AIRA to help me avoid mutually embarrassing incidents like these.

The only other glitch aside from the almond milk delay was that the operator’s shift finished, and she had to sign off three-fourths of the way through our trip through the store. But we re-started the app and a new remote operator came on from a different location.  He guided me to the last item on my healthy list — chia seeds.   With his collaboration, I easily navigated to the check out and finished my transaction without any problem.

After I checked out, I had a quick chat with the manager who accompanied me. I thanked her for carrying my basket for me.

MY FINDINGS.

My unusual, challenging list seemed to be a fair test of the AIRA app though it took nearly an hour and a half. Not everything was perfect, but nothing ever is. It’s better than knocking over an aisle display, and I can achieve a higher level of independence.

Before going out to meet my brother, I asked the manager, “How can I use the App independently?”   We talked about me carrying my credit card in a pouch around my neck, taking a smaller cart in one hand and using it as my navigational device along with the remote operator. That would leave one hand free to hold the iPhone and allow the operator to help me navigate. I was so glad the manager problem-solved with me. It made me see Wegman’s really is motivated to implement this app to make shopping a more pleasant experience for those with low vision.

Lovejoy reinforced that belief. “We’ve Introduced so many things over the years that are important to our customers when they shop at Wegmans, from different styles of shopping carts and wider lanes, to hearing loops and free access to Aira. Offering Aira at no cost gives those who are blind or [have] low vision another tool to have a great experience in our stores.”

I do like having wider aisles, and the choice of smaller carts. It’s the end of the aisles in any grocery store that make me shudder. I’m so apt to knock a display over. But having more eyes in the aisle even remotely made a big difference in my confidence level.

My vision-impaired colleagues in various online sight support groups periodically post how stressful shopping can be for those with low or no vision and ask for tips to help them through the experience.  I can’t wait to share my experience with them.  I laud Wegman’s who have implemented AIRA in all one hundred of the stores they operate.

Lovejoy summed it up nicely when she said, “Anytime you provide more access for people who have disabilities, you’re creating more access for people to enjoy their lives.

COOPERATION AND POSITIVE LIAISONS.

I don’t know how AIRA came to the attention of Wegman’s but I’ve since learned it is also used in airports as an accessibility feature. The more businesses that share resources with each other, the more eyes there are that seek out the comfort level of the blind and vision-impaired.

The liaison between AIRA and Wegmans demonstrates that customer service is vitally important in the United States and for me, someone with low vision, mobility matters, which keeps me in hope.

Step by step, life can not only be managed, we can enjoy it more fully by walking together, as in the model by AIRA, Wegman’s and the low vision shopper.

Hope you enjoy this video!

What about shopping challenges you? Where is the closest Wegman’s to you? Where else have you seen AIRA used as a tool?

“AIRA Aims to Put “A Breeze’ in Shopping Mobility” by Amy L. Bovaird. © August 13, 2019. All rights reserved.

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MOBILITY MATTERS Book Cover

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TESTIMONIALS:

5 Stars “…I’m not vision impaired. I don’t read non-fiction for enjoyment. I am not what some might consider the target market for this book, but I can tell you that I would recommend it to my own teenagers, my husband, my teenage students, and anyone else I know as a book of bravery, encouragement, motivation, testimony, and just as a pleasure read. Don’t pass it by: You will be blessed.”–An Amazon Reader

–An Amazon Reader

5 Stars   “Living in the Power instead of the fear!”

Mobility Matters elegantly shares Amy Bovaird’s emotions and experience which anyone going through vision loss can identify with. The transformation as she overcomes her fear and the enemies voices that her loss of vision will now define who she is as a person and dictate the rest of her life, will inspire hope to each reader. Amy’s journey stepping out in faith and how the Lord’s Word gave her the strength to keep going, is a must read.

This book is not only for those going through the hallway of vision loss, but for each family member or any one who loves someone losing their vision would also benefit by reading.

Mobility Matters Stepping out in Faith has left me thinking I will now call canes power sticks!!!

Michael Benson, Founder
Visual Experience Foundation

Michael Benson, Founder, Visual Experience Foundation

4 Stars  “…As a mobility specialist myself, I found this book of great interest to me for its subject matter. I was quite amazed that Amy could get around on her own with her genetic condition, particularly at night, since individuals with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) tend to lose their night vision and are using a cane at night much sooner than Amy was using any assistive device (even a bright light). Amy maintained her positive attitude, her faith and her sense of humour. If only we all could do that in times of crisis!” –Kathryn Svendsen, Mobility Specialist, Canada

–Kathryn Svendsen

5 Stars  “Couldn’t stop reading until I finished. Very inspirational. Will definitely be looking for more by this author!” –Sharon Hannah

–Sharon Hannah

5 stars “…This book really inspired me. Amy’s outlook on life is what I would like to model in my own. Yes, going blind SUCKS but she took it to another level. She made it into an adventure and I needed to be reminded of that again. Her positive outlook on this all has really encouraged me in my current situation now. Taking the step of faith to move on forward and embrace life for what it is. I highly recommend purchasing this book! Be inspired, take a journey behind the life of someone with Usher, smile, laugh, and enjoy! –Andi Nicole

–Andi Nicole

5 Stars “As a person who lives with chronic illness, I sometimes get bogged down with books on illness that feel really heavy. This one does not. Author Amy Bovaird, who is losing her sight, writes so well about her personal experiences, I feel like I’m walking alongside her as I read. I kept coming back to the story to see what happened–was she going to let fear stop her? Would she overcome?
The lessons Amy learns through her experiences apply to any of us who fear aging, illness, new symptoms, or really anyone who needs some inspiration, and that reminder that much can be accomplished if you step out and forward–even when you cannot see beyond that first step. I definitely enjoyed this book. –Kimberly Rae, Bestselling Author of the Stolen Series

–Kimberly Rae, Your Content Goes Here

Blog post review by Gillian Davis, RP Tunnel of Sight
One of the best books I have ever read about mobility and white cane use is called Mobility Matters: Stepping out in Faith by Amy Bovard. It is funny, poignant and packs a lot of tips and useful information. You can find it by following the link below to Amy’s web page and listen to a chapter before you buy, it is wonderful.

Gillian Davis, RP Tunnel of Sight

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