I must begin by asking you for your indulgence. Telling the story about what AIRA has done for me is no simple a task, it can never explain just how profound the experience is. So, here is where I ask for the indulgence, I need to tell you a little about me first, about my journey into blindness and what brought AIRA into my life. It is the only way to illustrate through words how powerful technology can be and how it can contribute to changing the life of someone who is impaired. I promise, this will be the “Readers Digest” Version.
I was born with RP, Retinitis Pigmentosa, it is a rare degenerative eye disease. It is what I believe is a cruel way to go blind. Cruel? Yes, I began my life seeing, I experienced most of the colors, textures and majesty of life. Slowly I went blind and by my mid 30’s the darkness set in. Up until that point I had a life just like most, worked and clawed my way up the corporate ladder and then one day the switch was flipped, and that life ended. I spent some time mourning, I guess you might look at it like going through the stages of grief. Finally, my wife told me, “Enough!” The pity party was over, and it was time to come back, time for a reboot of sorts. After many hours of conversation and a great deal of consternation, she finally asked me what I wanted to do, a simple question, but what she was asking was if you had to start life over what would you want to do? Being a writer was a lifelong dream of mine, one of those things that I fantasized about during boring corporate meetings, long drives and forever flights.
So, the source code of what was my life began its rewrite and Eric Burton became E.L. Burton. I wrote my first book. It was wildly acclaimed by “Me” as awesome, to everybody who mattered, well, let’s just say my appearance on the Bestseller list was somewhere in the future. From there I wrote for print and digital formats. I worked for political candidates writing speeches, articles, white papers and working in communications. Along the way I wrote a few more books as a ghost writer and another one for myself. The point is my blindness never stopped me from achieving something I thought at one point was not even possible. Along the way I managed to cheat blindness, hack it if you will, figuring out ways to work through, over, under and around the fact that I couldn’t see. Technology played a role but that came at a cost. You see, all that I had managed to do was to build the most awesome gilded cage. I mastered using the computer, slowly stumbling my way through learning the technology of voice to text and text to voice. But that is where I was, in a gilded cage that I had created in the world and I was fine there, or at least I thought that I was. Like most, time fades memory and freedoms once taken for granted became fog filled spaces in my life replaced with the artificial world that I had created. We all know that unless you are moving forward, you aren’t moving at all and that was where I found myself, simply running in place fooling myself into believing that I was making progress.
It is easy to fool yourself when you are blind, you learn to count steps, you learn routes, where things are and slowly you can in fact expand your world but that world is limited to doing a task over and over again, walking a route over and over again, tripping, bumping into and running over everything as you learn. Like I said, you begin to believe you are making progress, expanding your universe. However, and believe me there is always a “However” in life, there is always a delta, that thing you can’t control, that thing that isn't where it is supposed to be and for me it was such a small thing, a bicycle. (There is a longer story here, but I will spare you the details). So yes, a bike, the delta. In the confines of my limited world, my sphere of comfort or my gilded cage I tripped over a bike, tore up my knee and messed my ankle up pretty good and that is the precise moment I learned that I was not the master of my universe. You learn the hard way that losing your vision comes with a few hardships. You give up freedoms that most people take for granted. There isn't running to McDonald’s for a random Big Mac or just deciding to leave and take a walk or a drive. Up until that time I had to learn how to use a cane, learn how to be patient and wait for others to accompany me to the places and events that I had. That is until AIRA.
Here is where my wife re-enters the picture. As an employee of AT&T she had told me about a collaboration between AT&T and AIRA. My wife bleeds AT&T Blue, she loves her company and shares all the wonderful things AT&T is involved in. She understands that no matter what your role is, it is important and has meaning because of the many projects and ventures they are involved in and without the support and contribution of every employee at the company partnerships like the one with AIRA would never be possible. Translated into simpler terms, at AT&T no matter who you are, no matter how small you think your contribution is, you matter because AT&T isn't just a phone company, they are so much more. I would listen patiently, secretly thinking “I don't need this,” all that is going to happen is I would end up trying it, get frustrated and ditch it like so many of the other “Fixes” to being blind that had come before. After all, I had built a nice gilded cage, a pretty good life so why get my hopes up? But had I? Was I living the fullness of my life? Was there more? That damn bike had caused me to realize that maybe I had been fooling myself, maybe there was more out there beyond the comfortable realm of my carefully crafted and comfortable world.
So now that you know just a little about what brought me here let me tell you where AIRA has taken me. My first venture out was a watershed moment for me. I decided to throw caution to the wind, put my faith and trust in a technology that would take me outside the boundaries of the life I had worked so hard to craft and master. It was a simple thing, simple for those of you who are not blind, it is something most of you do without even batting an eyelash. I decided to cook my wife a special dinner, to do that I had to go GROCERY SHOPPING. Please keep in mind that I have not ventured outside my bubble let alone gone grocery shopping for close to 2 decades. Whenever I had I would have my cane in my right hand and my left hand on the shoulder of whomever I was with. Standing on the curb outside my building with my cane and new AIRA glasses I tapped my earpiece and instructed Siri to call AIRA. Within 5 seconds Jack answered my call, greeted me by name as though we were longtime friends and asked, “So what are we doing today?” I told Jack that we were going shopping and asked him to call me a Lyft. Soon I was traveling down the side streets to Trader Joe’s with Jack as my guide. He told me the drivers name and sat silently as we talked. The driver said he was surprised I saw him since I had a blind cane. I explained to him that I hadn’t seen him, Jack had. I am sure at this point the driver must have thought I might be suffering from the “Crazy’s” a bit, listening to the voices in my head! Don't worry, I explained to him that Jack was an AIRA agent looking at him through my glasses. The driver was amazed as I explained the technology. I asked the driver if he had heard of the “Google Driverless Car?” I then told him to think of me as the Self Driving Blind Guy!” He was amazed telling me that he had picked up many blind people, but this was a first for him. All the while Jack patiently listened and piped in occasionally to tell me where we were and the turns we had made and how far away we were. As we traveled beyond the imaginary line of my bubble my heart raced, I was nervous. What if the technology failed? What if I lost Jack? I had never been this far out of my gilded cage. Before I knew it, the driver and I had arrived.
I exited the vehicle and for the first time, stood at the entrance to the grocery store, alone, independent, free. Jack guided me into the store and asked what we would be shopping for. I told him that I needed some basics for a dinner I wanted to prepare for my wife plus the little chocolates my wife loves from Trader Joe’s. At this point I’m still a little freaked, my mind was awash with chaos and a little fear. Jack asked me to do a quick scan of the store and I slowly moved my head from left to right giving Jack a view of the store. We were off, first stop, produce where we picked out a few potatoes and some asparagus. Then another scan and I approached the dairy case. Scanning slowly and with Jacks keen eye I picked up sour cream, butter, Jack had me hold up items as he read labels to me for the things I needed in the dairy case, careful to make sure I was buying what I needed. We moved over to the meat, again Jack read the labels and we picked out the best-looking filets. I won’t bore you with the rest of the shopping but I will tell you that with Jack in my ear I was able to navigate the store flawlessly securing everything I needed, At the register, Jack let me know every detail and helped me pay and once outside the store he again secured me a Lyft home and “Poof,” I was home. I had accomplished something that until that moment didn’t seem possible. And yes, the dinner was fantastic but not as fantastic as the look on my wife’s face when she got home and saw the dinner, slowly the realization crept in that I had done all of this on my own and yes, she cried, hugged me and told me how amazed she was and how proud she was of me for taking such a giant step. This moment, the accomplishment, the emotion and the satisfaction would not have been possible without AIRA.
Since that time, I have gone to the salon for a manicure and a pedicure, eaten lunch out, shopped at the grocery store, gone downtown to the Dallas Museum of Art as well as the Sculpture Garden to meet my son Zach who patiently explained everything in vivid detail since he has his MFA in art and poetry. I have gone downtown to meet my wife for lunch, to a hotel we love for drinks and appetizers. All of this because AIRA has blown the door off my gilded cage and opened a whole new world filled with possibilities.
It isn't those things that I have done, it is the things that I look forward to doing. I have 3 grandchildren. I have never been able to read them a book or look at a picture they have drawn for me and been able to validate them for their thoughtfulness and their creativity because these young grand babies don't really understand that Papa can’t see. With AIRA I look forward to being able to do just that. I travel for work; however, it has always been a carefully choreographed thing that involves people taking me to the airport and getting me to the gate, having someone there to meet me at the arriving gate. Now with AIRA I look forward to just tapping my earpiece and telling them “We are headed to the airport,” with the knowledge and the security of knowing that I can exit the Lyft and navigate the airport independently.
For all of us, life is a journey and change is something that is inevitable. Reinventing yourself is as necessary as breathing because no matter who you are, no matter what challenges await you, knowing that you can accomplish anything if you are willing to simply try, to simply move forward is the single most powerful life lesson. Sometimes figuring out the where, when and how will require you to adopt new thinking, new technology, new courage and visualizing new possibilities. Life will always close doors on you but if you keep a positive eye down your path a new door is open and waiting for you to walk through it. The door to my vision closed many years ago, however, down the path a bit, on my journey through this life AIRA opened its door to me and what was once impossible to conceive became possible. My new way of looking at the word impossible is to use the exact same letters in the word with one simple modification, adding a strategic apostrophe, changing that which was impossible to “I’mpossible.” Armed with the new confidence AIRA has provided, my new motivation has become, “#What’s Next!?”
E. L. Burton