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Visual impairment not a barrier to learning with new app

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published Dec 10, 2020

The first College of Lake County (CLC) strategic pillar is access and success, which focuses on creating a student ready environment. To that end, CLC’s Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) is continually searching for ways to help students gain information which may otherwise be out of their reach or ability. Their latest investment to help student success is an app named Aira

“CLC's global mission is, ultimately, to assist in fostering success for our students.  However, success means very little to someone who does not have the ability to obtain it,” said Director of OSD Thomas Crowe. “Aira allows those who are blind to navigate the environment, find people in a large gathering or read through a printed item that might have been given to them last minute.” 

By using a smartphone with camera and data enabled, Aira connects a user with a highly trained professional who provides visual information in real-time. Caterina Raimondi is new to CLC, having enrolled in the massage therapy program in spring 2020 but is not new to tackling life despite a vision impairment having lost her vision nearly 30 years ago. 

Photo of Caterina Raimondi“I have retinitis pigmentosa where the retinal cells are actually dying. It’s a congenital disease,” said Raimondi (right). “I cannot get my vision back until they come up with a cure, but Aira is making it easier to get around and be a little bit more independent. Something that was taken away from me when I lost my vision.” 

Around that same time Raimondi and her husband had a son. Though she could no longer work her job as a radiographer, she was able to raise a family. He’s grown now and doesn’t need mom so much anymore, so Raimondi decided to take a leap and go back to school. 

“I did it for myself because when you end up being diagnosed with something tragic like that you go through depression,” said Raimondi. “You get really, really down on yourself and just feeling like you’re useless. However, it didn’t stop me from taking care of the household. I still cook and clean with help from my husband.” 

Even before she was enrolled, Crowe and his staff worked to create appropriate accommodations. Then Aira came along and Raimondi added one more tool to her student toolbox. All she, or any Aira user, does is activate the app and connect to its staff. Then they hold up their phone and the Aira staff member acts as their eyes using the device’s camera. They help to navigate, read signs and documents, even describe people; they truly become the user’s eyes. Aira is available to anyone who comes onto a CLC campus, not just students, faculty and staff. For community members who have put off enrolling due to a visual impairment, Raimondi says this may be exactly what they need. 

“If I can do it, anyone can because I can’t see anything at all. You just have to have the will and open up your mind to what technology is out there to help you,” said Raimondi.

See Raimondi and the app in action here.

With Aira fully implemented at CLC, OSD is already on to their next project; a software system which will further widen access for students and allow faculty to interact with accommodation requirements virtually. The office is also exploring a parallel academic program to assist students on the Autism spectrum navigate social interactions. The OSD mission is truly never-ending. 

About College of Lake County:

College of Lake County is a comprehensive community college committed to equitable high-quality education, cultural enrichment and partnerships to advance the diverse communities it serves in northeastern Illinois. Offered at three campuses in Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan or online, college classes are affordable and accessible to help each student achieve academic, career and personal goals. More than 70,000 students graduated with degrees and certificates since the college opened in 1969. The College of Lake County is the only higher-education institution ranked among the top 15 best places to work in Illinois by Forbes and is a national leader in many areas, including sustainability and conservation.