These state parks now offer blind visitors an app to help them safely explore on their own

A large Colorado expanse, showing a view of a mountain range dotted by evergreen trees

Disability activists have long fought for the right to exist with ease in public spaces. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has certainly improved universal access since it was passed in the 1990s, disabled Americans of all backgrounds still require improved support in all areas of public life.

Fortunately, accessibility is becoming more and more… well, accessible. From retail stores to national parks, measures are slowly but surely being implemented to make spaces safer and more welcoming to all kinds of visitors.

One new accessibility development has arrived for blind and low vision visitors of Colorado’s 42 state parks: The Aira app.

A woman with short brown hair stands in a state park in Colorado. She is holding up a smart phone and pointing it towards the landscape, while holding a mobility cane.
Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife

The app is an accessibility-assist tool, which uses the camera on a smartphone to connect users to a live, professionally-trained agent. This agent uses their video feed to visually interpret what is being shown on screen.

In a state park, for instance, that might sound like the agent describing a beautiful view, or helping a user navigate through terrain, read signs and brochures, or find their way to a landmark.

Earlier this month, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) announced the expansion of this tool, which has already been used to provide interpretation services for folks navigating state-operated locations or online services. Now, those locations include the state’s gorgeous parks.

Aira provides park visitors a free 30-minute session, which is paid for through the Governor’s Office of Information Technology’s Accessibility Program. If users need more time, they can connect for further complimentary help, as the service is available to use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

A screenshot of the home page on the Aira app. A large telephone button is in the center of the screen, with a sentence that reads "Your next Five Minutes Free call is available now."
A screenshot of the Aira app.

For app users who want to use Aira on their own, it costs about $50 for 30 minutes of assistance per month, with the first five-minute call offered for free. But the partnership with the state of Colorado makes this assistive technology financially accessible to all.

“All of us at Colorado Parks and Wildlife support working toward the important goals of a Colorado for All,” said CPW director Jeff Davis.

 “All of our park visitors, including blind or lower vision visitors, deserve access to our services. We’re incredibly fortunate to be included in the expansion of Aira, helping ensure everyone feels welcome at our parks, and know that our programs and locations aim to be equitable and inclusive.”

So far, the reviews have been great.

“For me, it was, you know what, I could go for a walk on this path, and I could feel completely safe, and I would enjoy a nice walk and get some exercise, in an unfamiliar area,” Aira user Sue Shusterman told the Colorado Sun. “It’s definitely a real confidence boost for me.”  

But adapting to new technology is not without — pardon the pun — rocky terrain.

A solid cellular connection is required for Aira’s services to work at state parks — and Colorado’s stunning vistas often make for weak cellular service in some areas.

Officials recommend that visitors call the park or visit the CPW website for a better idea of a certain park’s connectivity before visiting. Users are also encouraged to fully charge their devices or consider bringing a backup power source to ensure they can remain connected to Aira. 

While Aira has a long list of private and government partners, venturing into a park setting is a unique approach that may come with unexpected challenges. 

A close-up of two hands holding a smartphone. On the screen is the aira app logo.
Photo courtesy of Aira

But for users — and those behind the implementation of the program — the benefits of this technology certainly outweigh potential hurdles.

“The partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, OIT and Aira helps ensure accessibility for all in Colorado's great outdoors,” said OIT executive director and CIO David Edinger, in a statement.

“Together, we are not only transforming the way people who are blind or low-vision enjoy our state's natural beauty but also setting an example of how public-private collaborations can create meaningful impact.”

As accessibility initiatives become more mainstream in all areas of life, seeing the success of programs like this set a precedent for other government agencies, companies, and more. 

And just like all diversity and inclusion efforts, it’s a net good for organizations, too. In Colorado, not only does Aira make for a better state park experience, but it helps all visitors gain a deeper appreciation — and responsibility — for the natural world. 

“A tool like Aira helps us fulfill our mission of providing a quality state parks system for all Coloradans,” Davis, CPW’s director continued, “and helps us create more current and future stewards of Colorado’s natural resources.”

Header image by Ryan Jones/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Article Details

June 12, 2024 11:43 AM
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