In October 2013, on a cold day in Copenhagen, philosopher and craftsman Hans Jørgen Wiberg — a wiry man with an unassuming grace and a wide smile — took to the stage at a TEDx conference, introduced himself, and was enveloped in darkness.
“Imagine you’re blind,” he said to the audience.
“Imagine you’re standing in your kitchen cooking dinner. The recipe says add a can of coconut milk. You open your kitchen cupboard on the shelf there are three cans. You know that only one of them is coconut milk.
“What do you do?”
This surprisingly simple conundrum highlights a key challenge that visually impaired people face on a day to day basis. In the pursuit of independence, do you gamble — in this case potentially adding a much less appetising ingredients to your simmering curry — or risk testing a loved one / neighbour / friend’s patience by taking them yet another relatively trivial problem that day?
“There are a lot of situations like this in a blind person’s life,” continued Jørgen in his talk. “Situations where you need a pair of eyes — just for a short moment.”
In 2015, he launched a smartphone app, Be My Eyes, as a technological solution to the problem. When confronted by a temporary need to see, blind users can initiate a video call and be guided to the answer by one of the sighted volunteers in the same time zone. In the first 24 hours of the application going live, more than 10,000 volunteers and 1,000 blind users signed up.
As of 2019, Be My Eyes is now available in over 180 language in more than 150 countries. 2.5m sighted volunteers have signed up to support a base of almost 140,000 blind and low vision users.
So i downloaded this app called “Be my eyes” awhile ago. You get FaceTime calls from blind people all over the world & help them with whatever task it is that they need help w/. I just got my first call & helped this lady pick out almond milk. Something so small made her day ?? pic.twitter.com/iCCvVBdgw0
— Steven (@Elsmoove_) June 30, 2019
Speaking to CBC News, one blind app user, Reed Pynter, explained how using the application saved time and avoided relying too heavily on others nearby, which could be a bit disempowering. He said he’d made a call to add braille labels onto seed packets to be planted into the garden.
62-year-old Gordon Anthony explained that he used the app to help find his front door after returning from the library, or to read the results of a treadmill workout.
The application has also been dubbed a “tiny revolution in the world of volunteering”, by giving volunteers the flexibility to offer their time in short bursts, whenever they’re free. RNZ relays the story of Zoe Hector, a recent mother who used to volunteer quite intensively but was unable to commit to such time periods after giving birth. Using the app, she can choose to answer a call from a blind user if she’s free, or be safe in the knowledge that another user nearby will answer if she doesn’t — and also know that if she does answer, the encounters, while incredibly useful and meaningful, are usually quite short and punctual.
She’s helped tell people whether the bread they were about to toast was past its sell-by date, or which buttons to use on an unfamiliar washing machine at a friend’s apartment.