Often, I receive queries from readers of this blog asking if I will write about a particular subject in blindness and technology. These are usually good ideas for stories but, given the schedule I keep, they would take far more of my time to research, write and edit than I have available in my life at this point. Sometimes, though, a number of people all suggest that I write about the same subject and this article is the result of a number of those requests added to my own fascination with the Be My eyes phenomena.
As with the successful NVDA Remote Access fundraising campaign I wrote about here a couple of weeks back, I’m left with few hard and fast conclusions about Be My Eyes, its unprecedented growth in popularity, its penetration into mainstream media or its long term impact. What I am certain of, though, is that Be My Eyes accomplished something we’ve never before witnessed in the world of blindness and technology and that I am tremendously enthusiastic about its success so far.
What Is “Be My Eyes?”
If you read this blog, you probably follow the world of technology and vision impairment pretty closely so you are probably already quite aware of Be My Eyes (BME). If, however, you’ve been in a Rip Van Winkle style coma for the past few months, you may have missed what has been the 2015 access technology story of the year so far. Be My Eyes is an iOS app that, using a video chat system, connects blind people with sighted volunteers who can in turn lend them their ability to see.
Users download the Be My eyes software from the AppStore for no cost. When they launch the app for the first time, they are asked to register as either a blind person who may need assistance or as a sighted volunteer willing to provide such help. As I’m a blind user, when I launch the app, I’m presented with a very simple interface with only two buttons, one for “Settings” and the important one, “Connect To First Available Helper.” When one taps on the “connect” button, a little tune plays until one of the sighted volunteers accepts a request for help. Once connected, the blind user can point the camera on the iOS device at the object with which they need sighted assistance and the two parties can talk until they are satisfied they’ve solved the problem the blind person was experiencing.
The BME Phenomena
Be My Eyes is, quite obviously, a very useful tool as it provides near instant access to a volunteer willing to lend their vision to a situation in which a blind person needs some help. What BME is definitely not, though, is a tremendously innovative bit of engineering. For all intents and purposes, BME is a video chat program with the added feature of automatically connecting a person requesting assistance with a volunteer willing to help at that moment. The exciting aspects of BME aren’t wizardry in software engineering but, rather, its mastery of social engineering.
If you launch Be My Eyes right now, you will hear that it has 192K sighted volunteers, 17.3 registered blind users and 63.9K people have been helped so far. BME launched in January and, while actual market figures are impossible to get for other blindness related software products, I’m willing to wager that no technology product has reached as many blind people in as short a span of time ever before. I’m also 100% confident that no technology designed for assisting people with disabilities has received as much mainstream media attention in as compact a period either.
What BME Did
When a new technology product designed for use by blind people comes out, the hardest problem a publicist has communicating to mainstream media about it is what the thing actually does. The number of times I’ve had to explain that a screen reader is an output agent and is not voice recognition grows with nearly every conversation I have with a sighted person about the primary means with which a blind person interacts with a computer. We all use screen readers but few people outside the biz even know that such exist.
Enter Be My eyes. It does exactly one thing, it connects blind users with sighted helpers. For a blind person, it’s value is obvious, I tap a button, point the camera and I get sighted assistance; for the sighted volunteers, the value is also obvious, someone who can’t see needs to borrow a pair of eyes, I can do that.
The Be My Eyes story is so obvious, the mainstream media could comfortably talk about it and they did so in droves. I think that BME may be the first blindness oriented program that combined tremendous value to users while also having a story that can be told easily enough for all to understand.
The BME Controversy
I am of the belief that everyone, blind or otherwise, lives in a society and that each of us have ways to contribute and times we will need help. Some people around the blindness conversation are more radical than I am about independence. In my view, if asking a sighted person for help will solve a problem more quickly than I could do so by insisting on being fiercely independent, I’m going to ask for help. I often ask other pedestrians to identify places while I’m walking in a city, BME lets me ask for help when I’m alone and need sighted assistance in a hurry.
A few weeks back, though, I heard a sighted person on NPR pondering Be My Eyes with the question, “Would I be enabling or somehow taking away the agency of a blind person by helping them this way?” I suppose in the marketplace of ideas, such questions should be asked and such issues should be discussed. I don’t have answers to the hard problems in critical disability theory, I’m neither a scholar nor a philosopher. As a blind person who has BME installed on his phone, though, I’m happy to have this tool available to me and, having used it three times, I can say that it has been useful when I had no alternatives for getting something accomplished.
Be My eyes did something incredible in the blindness space. The BME team created a useful tool but, more interestingly, created a social phenomenon previously non-existent in our world. The sheer simplicity of the BME app allowed for a simple story to be told in a manner that the global media could comprehend. Will there be a next BME? Will another project repeat the publicity storm of Be My Eyes? I don’t know, I’m just happy that this event has happened and that we have BME as a tool on our mobile devices.