This article is written by Chris Venter, one of BeSpecular's blind users. The views expressed below are solely his & we at BeSpecular are tremendously grateful for his contribution.
I have not always been blind. When I lost my sight and became another statistic among the 285 million visually impaired people around the globe, I truly did not know how I would manage. The solitude and confinement was paralyzingly. It is as if you are locked in a prison cell while the world still moves around you and you are unable to do anything but sit and wait.
Slowly as my confidence improved, certain activities became manageable, like finding my way around my home. I quickly learnt about accessibility and the many people and organisations who are working hard to create inclusive environments through the correct application of accessible principles. There are however some tasks that are seemingly insurmountable - these are the real challenges that a visually impaired person faces.
The number one wish that all blind people have is to be as independent as possible in our daily tasks. Tasks that may seem simple to a sighted person can be next to impossible for a blind person without seeking help.
Reading the label on food stuffs, without unnecessarily opening and spoiling the contents, for example, can be so frustrating. No matter how many times I ‘will’ my sense of smell to tell the difference between a can of peas and a can of peaches, there is always a 50% chance I will open the wrong thing. Challenges like this have made me want to scream, swear, jump up and down and sometimes spontaneously combust into flames.
Now asking someone is an easy solution, if there is a sighted person around, but that always makes me feel like a burden and annoyance. I am braille illiterate, so a labelling machine does not help me either.
I sometimes feel that I would rather just go without than have to ask for guidance. Other times, I like to play a game akin to Russian Roulette to see if the tin can I am about to crack open contains coke or beer.
When a new App, called BeSpecular, was launched earlier this year to bridge the gap between the blind and sighted, I must admit, I was a bit unsure. The app endeavors to pair sighted volunteers with a blind user to assist with resolving daily challenges that blind people encounter. How would it work and how easy and accessible would it be? How long would it take to get a reply, if ever?
I was surprised at how intuitive it was to send through my first request. I opened the app and followed the simple instructions to snap a picture of the onion I was about to chop. I then recorded an audio message asking if it was a red or white onion. The app told me, within seconds, that a person was responding. A short while later I had three replies and confirmation that it was in fact a red onion. Brilliant.
Image: Chris Venter, the Blind Scooter Guy, standing alongside his vintage scooter decorated in stickers and gear while holding his cane. Photo Credit: Michael Timm.
As a blind user, I can chose to receive more than one response. If I am not satisfied with the initial feedback, I can leave the request ‘active’ or, by a simple double tap of my finger, I can close my request. I can also rate the responses, thereby giving the most descriptive sighted volunteers the proverbial cyber high five. I was suitably impressed.
Over the following days, I challenged the app with all sorts of questions. If volunteers were willing to ‘loan’ me a moment of their eyesight, I was going to take it. It has been a life saver for me and given me back some of my independence. From checking the labels on food stuffs, or anything for that matter, to getting volunteers to read me the dosage on a medicine bottle, this app really works.
I have used it to check the reading on my tape measure and to get the wires the right way around when putting a plug on my new toaster. I am sure that if you chat to any blind people they will tell you their own stories of going out with mismatched socks or shirts that are really not a good match. I have even managed to go the entire day wearing two slightly similar but very different in color shoes. This will never happen again thanks to this amazing new app.
Being blind is always frustrating, this feeling never goes away. Having a pair of ‘on demand’ eyes readily available is what I call accessibility in action.
If you are a blind person, like me, I challenge you to download and try the BeSpecular app for yourselves. It is a free download and free to use. It can be obtained for both iOS and Android devices. Try it! You have nothing to lose and I can guarantee it will change your life.
Review by Writer: Christopher Venter