Starbucks offers Aira, creating accessible experience for blind and low vision customers

Through a smartphone app, San Diego-based Aira Tech Corp connects people who are blind and low-vision to highly trained, remotely-located visual interpreters to provide instant access to visual information.

As a girl, Susan Mazrui lived close to two libraries where, each week, she and her sister would go check out the limit – 12 books from each. She checked out books on cultural anthropology, history, natural sciences. She explored the world around her through the words in those books, she said.

But that ended when she was 17 and went blind due to multiple sclerosis. Back then, in the 1970s, there were few accessibility options, said Mazrui, who describes herself as “curious about almost everything.”

Losing her ability to see words has been one of the hardest things, she said. “It’s everywhere – signs, instructions and labels, menus,” she said.

Mazrui, now 58, says if she could talk to her teenage self, she’d tell her, “You’d be amazed at what technology can do.”

Susan Mazrui

“It helps me scan the environment and learn what’s there and do it quickly,” she said.

For instance, a service called Aira, which Starbucks began offering for free today in all U.S. stores in partnership with San Diego-based Aira Tech Corp. Aira connects blind and low-vision people to trained visual interpreters who provide instant access to visual information through a third-party smartphone app.

Earlier this month, Susan walked into a Seattle Starbucks and, using Aira, was able to ask a remote agent to describe the layout of the store so she could navigate to the order line and point-of-sale, read the menu to her and describe options in the pastry and Ready-to-Eat and Drink cases and on the counters.

“It helps me scan the environment and learn what’s there and do it quickly,” she said.

Instead of having to try to remember what’s on the menu, and possibly miss new seasonal options, through Aira, “I can be like every other customer with the same number of choices,” she said.  

Creating Connection through Inclusion And Accessibility

Starbucks first tested Aira service in seven U.S. cities early this year, including at its Signing Store in Washington, D.C., one of nine Signing Stores globally that provide a space for the Deaf and hard of hearing community to connect through sign language and celebrate Deaf culture. Partners (employees) who work at these stores are all proficient in sign language.

Matthew Gilsbach, store manager at the D.C. Signing Store, says the customer reaction to Aira service “has been nothing short of positive. It’s one more tool that we can use for customers to be themselves and be independent. And customers and partners both feel that there are no more barriers between them. They can get to know each other, build relationships and have those connections: one human to another human.”

Matthew Gilsbach, store manager at the D.C. Signing Store

“Aira has lessened the requirement for touch and helps us maintain social distancing. Blind customers are able to navigate the store safely.”

Aira has also proven to be helpful for customers navigating the protocols and physical changes implemented in stores during COVID-19.

“Aira has lessened the requirement for touch and helps us maintain social distancing. Blind customers are able to navigate the store safely,” said Matthew. “For people to feel like they can come into the store, despite their concerns of what's going on with COVID… that goes a long way.”

Integrating Inclusive Design

Offering Aira service is part of Starbucks ongoing commitment to inclusion, diversity and equity and efforts to enhance accessibility of the Starbucks Experience for partners (employees) and customers, starting from the early stages of design.

Susan Mazrui using AIRA app to scan the food case in the store

Last year, Starbucks Accessibility Office, led by Sevana Massih, Inclusion and Diversity program manager of accessibility, Store Design and Tryer Center teams came together to conduct research and consult with inclusive design experts, Starbucks partners, the disability community and organizations like the World Institute on Disability, with a goal of designing with accessibility as the standard.

The team conducted an analysis to benchmark accessibility throughout every aspect of the Starbucks Experience. Then, they began collaborating on key projects to improve physical and digital experiences for partners and customers, starting with creating new store design standards, as well as updating the Starbucks app and webpage to enhance accessibility for people with disabilities, work which has proven to be especially valuable in providing important customer updates during COVID-19. And, launching this summer, the company will provide new large print and Braille menus, developed in partnership with National Braille Press, in all U.S. and Canada stores.

Emily MacKinnon, a program manager on the Store Formats team, has been focused on implementing inclusive design across Starbucks the Starbucks enterprise. “We’re trying to keep accessibility in mind with every project. It’s exciting work and we have found that integrating inclusive design early into our processes can lead us to new innovation that benefits a wider range of customers. When you design with diversity in mind, it creates a better experience for everyone.”

The team is focusing on accessibility within the partner experience as well. Recently, the team led testing of clear face masks for partners, which are now provided to all Deaf and hard of hearing partners in Starbucks U.S. retail, non-retail, distribution centers, and roasting plants. Other projects include more accessible store equipment, like a new coffee brewer with large tactile buttons and haptic and visual feedback features, and cold cups that feature tactile bumps and high contrast lines for measuring.

“We are learning that co-creating with the disability community is how we find the best possible solution,” said Emily. “Ultimately, we will know we are successful when we can create a welcoming and inclusive environment where everyone can experience the best of what Starbucks has to offer – a moment of connection and an uplift to your day.”

For Susan, being able to access Starbucks in a new way provides a welcome break in her day and helps her share the experience with others.

Susan Mazrui using Aira app

“Starbucks is not about coffee, really, for me, it's about joy. It's finding those little minutes of delight in your day - whether you’re traveling and you are going to a place you know to buy a beverage or something you’re familiar with that's comforting, or you've had a stressful day and you just want to take a break.

“There were times I wouldn't go into Starbucks to order something because I didn't remember the particular name of it ... or do they have Pumpkin Spice Latte now? (With Aira), I can scan around and see that, oh, they also carry Madeleines which my daughter loves and I can purchase those and bring them home and bring her something special.”

Linda Dahlstrom contributed to the story

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