Be My Eyes Helps our Blind and Visually Impaired Patients Navigate Their World
By Marguerite McDonald, MD, FACS
There are smartphone apps that allow strangers to deliver food to you, pick you up and take you to the airport, even give you advice on your love life. Now, there are apps that offer information and assistance to the blind and visually impaired.
The KNFB Reader app, for example, converts text to Braille or speech. The LookTel Money Reader identifies currency and announces the denomination. With TapTapSee, a visually impaired person can take a picture or a video with a smartphone, and the app will identify, out loud, the object captured.
But another app, Be My Eyes, allows volunteers around the world to lend their eyes to the blind and visually impaired. Through a live video call, Be My Eyes connects a blind caller with a sighted person who can help with everyday tasks, from identifying household objects to describing artworks.
Founded in 2015 by Danish furniture craftsman Hans Jorgen, Be My Eyes currently boasts more than 2.1 million sighted volunteers in 150 countries who offer assistance in more than 180 languages. However, they could always use more volunteers. Statistics are imprecise because definitions of blindness vary, but the National Federation for the Blind estimates there are more than 7.6 million Americans over age 16 with significant visual disability.
With Be My Eyes, the visually impaired person calls in to request assistance. They are connected, usually within half a minute, to a live volunteer, and through the visually impaired person’s smartphone, the volunteer can describe surroundings, read road signs, or provide whatever services the caller needs. If one volunteer is busy when a call comes in, the app will find the next available volunteer and connect the user immediately. Each request is sent to multiple volunteers at a time to ensure that user will get assistance as quickly as possible.
When visually impaired people prepare for their first call, they receive guidance to make it easier for the volunteer or customer support agent to assist them. They are asked to accommodate any directions the volunteer gives them, so that they can get a clearer view or locate the information that the caller is looking for. They are asked to hold the camera steady so that the image transmitted is in focus. If the caller wants a specific item to be identified, it helps to place the item on a steady surface. And, it is important that the room is not too noisy and properly lit, and that the caller has a good internet connection.
Ten of the common ways people use Be My Eyes are:
Finding lost or dropped items.
Describing pictures, paintings, or other works of art.
Matching or explaining colors.
Reading labels on household products.
Reading on computer screens if websites are inaccessible or screen readers are not available.
Shopping in supermarkets.
Identifying the expiration date on perishable food packages.
Becoming familiar with new places.
Distinguishing between food items.
Finding out when public transportation is departing or arriving.
Anyone can download the app and register for free on their smartphone; it is available for both Android and iOS devices. The app can be downloaded from Google Play or the App Store. And, information on becoming a Be My Eyes volunteer is available on the website.
The satisfaction that the volunteers feel is indescribable; they feel useful and joyful. They are grateful for the sight that allows them to help a visually impaired person.
Marguerite McDonald, MD, FACS, with OCLI on Long Island, NY, is clinical professor of Ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center, NY, and clinical professor of Ophthalmology at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.