When sighted people and the media address blindness, there’s often a focus placed on the loftier, more emotional experiences that come with blindness rather than the basic mechanics of their lives. What often goes overlooked are the many inconveniences blind people deal with day-to-day. For example, a person without sight doesn’t experience natural light and dark the same way, so their sleep schedule can easily get out of whack. Handling paper money is no simple task, and anything with a touch screen can be difficult or impossible to use without accessibility features.
But perhaps one of the most frustrating things is not being able to find and identify items by sight in your home.
Picture this: you’re making dinner, and you want to heat up vegetable stock for a soup, but the can of stock feels exactly like another can in your pantry that could be anything from beets to pickled white fish. What do you do? If you live alone or are the only one home, this can cause everything you’re doing to come to a total standstill.
Luckily, technology can help solve some these problems, thanks to brilliant creators like Hans Jørgen Wiberg. Visually impaired himself, Wiberg worked as a consultant for the Danish Blindness Association, where he met with many blind people and often heard about the daily frustrations they faced. Aside from mistaking cans of food, they often aren’t sure what their oven temperature is set at, or outside of the kitchen, whether their shirt matches their pants. Though individually those are just annoyances, small obstacles eventually mount up.
“One of my blind friends was telling me he was using Skype or FaceTime to make calls [to friends and family] when he needed help, but he said, ‘I always have to call someone.’ It got me thinking that we should just make a group of volunteers,” says Wiberg.
So in 2012, Wiberg came up with an idea for an app that would allow a blind person to send a request for assistance to a large number of volunteers whenever they needed help with something visual. Whoever responded first would then be connected to the blind person via video call, and from there could help them identify or find whatever they needed.
Wiberg and a team of seven app developers and business strategists created the final product, the Be My Eyes app, in 2015. The team knew there was already another app on the market that allowed blind people to upload a photo and send it to volunteers for help, but the existing option was problematic for visually impaired users who often struggle operating phone cameras and touch screens. What’s more, “none of the existing services had group calling services,” notes Wiberg.
As a video-based app, Be My Eyes allows volunteers to quickly and effectively help a blind person without any unnecessary uploading or button-pushing.
If a blind person needs help, all they have to do is open the app and push one main button for assistance, or they can ask their voice-activated phone assistant to make a “Be My Eyes Call.” Within moments, they’ll be connected to someone from a group of at least 50 people who might be available.
Low commitment, lots of connection
Be My Eyes is revolutionary for more than just the blind people who rely on it. For the sighted, it’s an opportunity to do some volunteerism without even having to leave the couch.
All volunteers have to do to sign up is give their name, email address, and what language(s) they speak. And voila! They’re added to a volunteer network over 1.6 million strong. When someone needs assistance between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. in a volunteer’s time zone, they’ll receive a notification, and if they choose to answer, they’ll be connected to that person via video call. The calls are usually no longer than a couple of minutes, but volunteers say it instantly makes you feel like you’re positively impacting that person’s life.
“If I was on the street or in a grocery store, and someone asked me for help, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it,” notes Matt, a volunteer from Ontario, in a testimonial. “Be My Eyes is basically the digital version of that.”
Matt’s first call was with a woman who wanted to make a frozen pizza, but when it started, he thought there was something wrong with her video. It only took them a little while to realize they were in different time zones, and it was nighttime where she was, so she didn’t have lights on because she doesn’t need them.
So his tip to newbie volunteers is “always make sure your caller has the lights on.”
Since Be My Eyes has made volunteering so simple and convenient, they now have what Wiberg calls “a positive problem”—about 10 times as many volunteers as blind people.
“People are really eager to do this,” he notes.
They can now offer help in more than 183 languages, which means they have over 50 volunteers who can speak each one of those languages. It also doesn’t matter when you need help—there will always be a volunteer someone around the world who’s available.
“If you speak any major language, we can always find someone we can connect you to in another time zone where it’s a better time of the day,” says Wiberg.
Access to such a massive help line has also had a major impact on blind people who are using the app.
“That little bit of help they might give us over the course of a few minutes, it’s a big thing for someone that’s blind or visually impaired,” says Chris from the United Kingdom. “And to have access to that personal contact … I couldn’t imagine life without it.”
Building a sustainable business model
Since 90 percent of blind people live in developing countries, the founders decided from the beginning that the app will remain free for blind people to use. However, that’s put Be My Eyes in a bit of a bind in terms of being able to sustain the cost of providing their service.
So, to monetize their creation, Be My Eyes is exploring the possibility of licensing their software to customer service departments at companies like Microsoft. Many companies have customers who call in for help setting up or troubleshooting their product. For example, they might be setting up a new computer, and can’t see the prompts on the screen, so they call the computer company’s customer service line to help walk them through it. When the customer is blind, the customer service can’t conduct a video call to help walk them through steps they aren’t able to accurately see and follow. Be My Eyes plans to license its software to those customer service departments to make them better able to serve all their customers, blind or not.
“We hope to get a whole bunch of companies onboard,” says Wiberg.
However, the best part for Wiberg continues to be the overwhelmingly positive responses he gets from the Be My Sight volunteers. Many of them are older and can’t get out and do good in their own communities–this innovation is giving them that chance.
“The fact that you can do it in this technological way triggers something,” notes Wiberg.
“They feel like they can also reach out and help. It’s really a small thing, and people get so emotional about it. It’s really hitting people.”