FEATURE: Lend your eyes to the blind with mobile app

With ever-increasing advances in technology the world is being pulled closer together. But for many blind and partially sighted people, the unstoppable march of progress is making them feel left behind.

Julie Scarle is visually impaired and works for Nottinghamshire MySight - a charity which supports the 28,000 visually impaired people in Nottinghamshire and around 5,000 registered blind.

Image courtesy Emil Jupin and Thelle Kristensen

Image courtesy Emil Jupin and Thelle Kristensen

She says she doesn’t know if technology is an enemy or a friend.

“Technology is making life harder. The more it improved and becomes more complicated and stylish, the more you can feel excluded if you don’t know how to use it.”

For Julie, something as simple as turning on the TV has been made harder over the years.

“There are more and more buttons on the remote, and I can’t read them. It’s the same for many things around the house - on washing machines you don’t often find proper buttons that you can feel anymore, and shopping in supermarkets, self-service tills - everything is going touchscreen now which makes life challenging,” says Julie.

Be My Eyes has a "Network of Eyes" offering help around the globe

Be My Eyes has a "Network of Eyes" offering help around the globe

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WATCH: Notts Mike tests mobile app to help blind

And mobile -phones are of course no exception.

She adds: “When I moved to a smart phone it did my head in, you have to make the phone work in a very different way and it can be very frustrating.”

Mike Fuller, 68, can use his iPhone apps to help him see around the house.

Mike Fuller, 68, can use his iPhone apps to help him see around the house.

That’s not to say a lot of provision hasn’t been given for the blind - computers have a range of accessibility software and Julie applauds iPhones in particular for built-in speech recognition and easy-to-use functions.

But there is still a lot to be desired, she says - and particularly as people want more and more to use this technology.

“A large number of people won’t want things in braille anymore, they will get it emailed to them and download it to a talking app. I can get my TV remote to work with my phone.”

And this app revolution is starting to turn the curve. For a few years there has been a mobile app available to blind people - TapTapSee - which allows them to take photographs of things they need reading, but it’s a paid service and can be difficult to use, said Julie.

So with the arrival of a new app, Be My Eyes, she says mobile technology for blind people is getting exciting again.

Be My Eyes was launched in January, bringing visually impaired and sighted people together, and letting anyone volunteer a few seconds every day to help out someone in need - and relying on volunteers is what sets it apart, and makes it totally free.

Its creators in Denmark say it’s designed to be easy and informal - a visually impaired user pings out to people who have the app, and as soon as someone answers it starts a direct video call.

It currently has 168,000 sighted volunteers and 17,000 blind users who have been helped almost 60,000 times since it started.

One of them, Mike Fuller, 68 from Bilborough, tried the app for us.

He said it was brilliant.

And the retired civil servant of Strelley Road who is quite the techno-phile (he is particularly proud of the micro-power plant on his roof) said it was brilliant.

He adds: “”It was a very good app - I was apprehensive about using an app with people at the other end, but I got a lot more out of it because it.

“The first person I’ve got was from London and she said she had never used it before. She could tell me where to focus so she could see exactly what I was on about.

We got the wife to have a go - she cant see either - we haven’t got an eye between us, and she loved it too. She got a chap from Egypt, and we didn’t realise it was worldwide, so there is always someone available.

Mike knows only too well how isolating the technological world can be.

“We are being left behind by technology,” he says. “For one thing, it did me out of the job.”

Mike worked for the Civil Service for 41 years. He spent 27 years as a typist and then as a point of contact on the phones before taking early retirement in 2010.

“I could have carried on” he says. “But with all the changes to point of contact for the tax office there was less and less for me to do.”

It’s increasingly the way, he adds.

“A few years ago 78 per cent of blind people couldn’t work. Now that number is 82 per cent.

MySight IT officer Alan Hart who introduced the app to Mike, says: “Taptapsee can be difficult to use because you have to take a photograph of something, and it can often take a few goes to get it in shot, get it in focus and so on. so using video might be easier to use.

“Anything that gives service users more choice is great - some people may prefer the personal contact and some people may prefer to use a video stream. We think both programmes are absolutely brilliant.”

Be My Eyes is a free download from the Apple App Store. It’s creator, Danish furniture craftsman Hans Jørgen Wiberg, 50,started losing his vision when he was 25. He says: “It is flexible, takes only a few minutes to help and the app is therefore a good opportunity for the busy, modern individual with the energy to help others.”