Visionary tools: The technology helping people to see

Visually impaired people are faced with challenges just completing everyday tasks that others take for granted.

Thanks to technology, it’s becoming easier for those with visual impairments and blindness to navigate the world. Read on to discover the tool Google and Microsoft are using to help their visually impaired customers...

Mendi Evans is an assistive technology specialist at Bosma Enterprises. She is also blind and uses apps like Aira, Be My Eyes, TapTapSee and Seeing AI to help her complete tasks. “It allows for greater independence and the ability to do things on your own schedule instead of having to wait for sighted assistance,” she says.

These apps all work in slightly different ways: TapTapSee and Seeing AI are both camera-based programmes, which identify objects using artificial intelligence. Aira is a subscription-based service where visually impaired people can connect to professional assistants via smart glasses or a smartphone. Be My Eyes is a free service where volunteers sign up to take video calls from visually impaired people to help with tasks such as reading instructions or identifying objects.

A visually impaired person uses Be My Eyes

Evans says that she pays to use Aira but “if it is not available – or if the task is something not sensitive and I would rather save my paid minutes, apps like Be My Eyes are very useful. There are just some things a picture app like TapTapSee cannot do.”

And that’s how Be My Eyes started. A visually impaired Danish furniture craftsman, Hans Jørgen Wiberg, was volunteering with the Danish Association of the Blind. He realised the people he was working with needed help on an everyday basis. A blind friend told him that he was using video calls to contact family and friends for assistance and Wiberg had the idea for Be My Eyes.

The concept is simple: a visually impaired or blind person uses the app on their smartphone to make a video call to a volunteer who can answer their query.

A volunteer responds to a Be My Eyes call

“I have had volunteers from Be My Eyes identify light bulbs, help figure out an electronic window blinds panel, read cooking directions and get expiration dates off things,” Evans says.

After signing up to receive calls requesting assistance and helping a visually impaired man through the app to identify the colour of the shirt he had selected, I spoke to Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, CCO at Be My Eyes, to find out more.

“Day to day, Be My Eyes is empowering people with low vision to lead more independent lives, but it is also breaking down barriers between people with and without disabilities, and increasing awareness about accessibility to help build a more inclusive world,” Hauerslev Jensen says. “Our technology takes the simple concept of connecting someone who needs assistance with someone who can provide that assistance, regardless of those individuals’ nationalities, income levels, races or beliefs. The stories that come out of these calls are truly uplifting.”

A visually impaired person uses Be My Eyes

One such story is that of Norbert Müller, a 65-year-old from Switzerland, who has used the app for various tasks, including working a complicated coffee machine. “One of the important things, which has changed in my life through Be My Eyes, is that I do not always have to wait until a sighted person comes along,” he says in a testimonial on the Be My Eyes website.

It’s these stories that Be My Eyes is working to increase and they have their sights set beyond their current users. “This very special combination of technology and human generosity is something that we trust is here to stay, and we expect to see not only blind and low vision people as the benefactors,” Hauerslev Jensen says. “Technology is a tool that can make societies that everybody has equal access to opportunities.”

A visually impaired person uses Be My Eyes

With two million people now signed up as volunteers, Be My Eyes has a task ahead of them to keep these people engaged and willing to help. But Hauerslev Jensen isn’t concerned. “I think many people have an inherent desire to serve, and the volunteer model we have at Be My eyes is a simple way to make a positive impact without interrupting your life,” he says.  

So what’s next? They’ve recently launched a specialised help section where companies, such as Google and Microsoft, can connect with blind and low-vision customers to provide them with improved, more accessible customer support. “It is our belief that when societies are designed to be inclusive and accessible, everyone benefits,” Hauerslev Jensen says.

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