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Butler signs onto app to help the blind

Staff photo / Andy Gray Joy Mistovich, digital user experience accessibility specialist and an education department assistant at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, talks about the museum becoming an access location for the Aira app.

YOUNGSTOWN — Joy Mistovich of Boardman used the Aira app to enjoy attractions ranging from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art outside of Pittsburgh to the St. Louis Aquarium.

Now she can use it at the museum where she works.

The Butler Institute of American Art is an access location for Aira (pronounced like the name Ira), a program designed to help blind and low-vision visitors navigate everything from retail businesses to arts institutions.

Subscribers to the app can use their smartphones to access human agents, who can describe for users what’s in front of them by accessing the phone’s camera. The service can guide users through a store to find the merchandise they want to purchase or, at a place like the Butler, describe details of a painting users might not be able to see without assistance.

“I consider it a springboard for accessibility,” said Mistovich, who has some usable vision in one eye and only light perception in the other eye.

Mistovich, who has been using Aira since 2017, was hired by the Butler in November as an education department assistant and as its digital user experience accessibility specialist. She first pitched the idea to the Butler in January 2020, but its implementation was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve always been passionate about going to art museums and having a greater appreciation for the arts,” she said. “Both my mom and dad are former art teachers (her mother, Joyce Mistovich is the Butler’s education director), and at a very early age they took me to different art museums. It’s one thing to have a sighted person describe (a work of art) in detail, but it’s an entirely different realm when it’s an Aira agent, who is extremely professional and well trained in helping the blind and low-vision community.

“They can give any detail of a painting or drawing, describe the colors, describe the size of it. They can give a rundown of what’s in each gallery and so much more that enhances the experience. It truly enhances your ability to be more independent.”

Louis A. Zona, executive director of the Butler, said, “The board members and I are excited about the idea of utilizing technology in this way to benefit patrons who have certain vision challenges. Joy is the perfect person to introduce the technology. She is very enthusiastic about the project.”

While institutions like The Ohio State University and Cleveland State University have turned all of their on-campus buildings into Aira access locations, the Butler is one of the only arts organizations in the state currently connected to the service, Mistovich said.

The Aira app is free to download, and users can purchase minutes (like a pay-as-you-go cellphone plan) to access agents. A download link for the app is available on the Butler’s website (butlerart.com).

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