Seeing eyeball to eyeball, through a smartphone

Picture this: Following an intense study session, Grand Valley State University student Juanita Lillie feels like kicking back and watching a favorite movie.

This, like many everyday activities, can be complicated for Juanita because she has a visual impairment.

First, she wants to be sure she really deserves that study break. How long was she really studying?

Second, which of the audio-described DVDs on her bookshelf is the movie she wants to pop into the player?

When Juanita needs a set of eyeballs, she picks up her iPhone.

There are mobile applications that leverage the camera on the phone and text-to-speech functionality to read the time on a clock and the title of the video. Some apps also have versions that run on Android and Windows mobile devices.

The newest such app is Be My Eyes, which connects people with visual impairments with sighted people who want to help in real time. Using the smartphone camera like a mirror, the sighted person can describe aloud where the person who is blind is pointing the device.

Since Be My Eyes debuted in January 2015, more than 190,000 sighted people, and more than 17,000 people with visual impairments worldwide, have downloaded the free app.

By April 1, the app had made possible 65,000 instances where people who are blind received real-time help from someone they didn’t know.

Developer of the app is an employee with a visual impairment at the Danish Blind Society. He recognized that momentarily “borrowing” a working pair of eyes through technology would significantly ease everyday challenges for people who are blind.

Juanita has used “Be My Eyes” to select food from her freezer that she wants to defrost, and to identify canned goods.

During the app’s first week, wait times for assistance often stretched to 15 minutes. Sometimes, over-eager helpers quiz her about her disability. Juanita, although grateful for the help, sometimes just needs to return to her cooking.

She suspects those annoyances will dissipate as Be My Eyes’ novelty fades.

“I have another app that I use most for reading printed text to me,” Juanita said, “but an advantage of Be My Eyes is there’s a person on the other end who can tell you how to position the camera so the type is visible.”

The fact that the app connects to a real volunteer could also be its downfall.

“You should be really careful where you’re pointing the camera,” Juanita said.

For example, using Be My Eyes to distinguish your bottles of shampoo and conditioner would not be wise if you’ve already disrobed for a shower.

Jeff Sykes, assistive technology coordinator at GVSU, predicts the greatest value of Be My Eyes will be realized when a user who is blind becomes lost in a parking lot or some other uniform environment. A real-time connection to someone who can read signposts and detect other visual markers can be critical in such situations.

The app could also be very useful if a person with a visual impairment was in a chaotic situation, and unable to determine from his or her other senses how to leave.

Sykes, who has sight, is a registered user of Be My Eyes but has not yet received an assistance call.

About 20 of GVSU’s 25,000 students have low- or no-vision. Sykes typically teaches those who do to use a mobile app called Tap TapSee.

People with vision impairments are often fiercely independent and reluctant to seek help even in small measures, Sykes said. Some connect with family and friends over mobile apps like Facetime and Skype if they’re in a bind, but hate interrupting again and again.

Sometimes a non-human alternative like Tap TapSee is preferred, Sykes said.

The user takes a photo with the phone, and Tap TapSee sends it from the camera roll to a server, which identifies it through object-recognition technology. Seconds later, the app audibly identifies the object.

The process works quick and well, as long as the user snaps the photo 8 to 12 inches from the object. (Set audible auto-focus alerts as a guide.)

Users say audio descriptions aren’t necessarily precise. The user is told there are “yellow flowers,” leaving her to wonder whether they’re daffodils, dahlias or dandelions.

“Good app, but it’s not free forever,” Sykes said.

Downloading Tap TapSee is free. After an initial 100 trial photos, users have to choose a subscription plan. (The user’s next 100 photos would be prepaid at $7.99. He or she could also get three months of unlimited usage for $24.99.)

Juanita said her hands-down favorite mobile app is KNFB, which loads all the functionality of a stand-alone reading machine into her multi-functional smartphone.

KNFB works similar to Tap TapSee in that character-recognition software identifies a photograph and instantly describes it using text-to-speech software.

As long as print in the photo is clear, the app works great, Juanita said. It doesn’t even need an Internet connection.

But KNFB, at $100, is pricey.

Be My Eyes is completely free open source software developed by a nonprofit organization and powered by volunteers.

It’ll be interesting to see whether it catches on with blind and sighted users.


Assistive Technologies - Go Ahead. Make Your Life Easier.

By the time he was 50, it was obvious my brother had a hearing loss.

Maybe decades of working around heavy equipment assaulted his hearing.  Maybe he attended too many rock concerts and sat too close to the speakers.  Maybe it's just part of aging.

Our mother suggested he get evaluated for hearing aids, but Bruce wouldn't hear of it.

He said he could compensate.  Besides, he didn't want to look "old."

Needing an assistive device to do something you used to be able to do on your own can seem daunting, but the trepidation is usually short-lived.

I wasn't enthused about getting my first pair of eyeglasses in the sixth grade, but finally being able to see the world clearly made me forget concerns about how I looked to others.

Most of us are accustomed (or spoiled) by automation in our homes.  Programmable heating and cooling, automatic garage door openers, remote controls for TVs, and kitchen appliances are all assistive technologies, and nobody's embarrassed to use them.

These days, so much information and communication is virtual and the tools to help us are digital.

Both IOS (Apple) and Android (Google) operating systems have built-in screen-readers (Voiceover and TalkBack, respectively) and magnification apps.  They sport other accessibility features too, that help users with limitations in vision, hearing and motor skills.  

More possibilities will debut this fall.  IOS 8 will be introducing a Braille, a gray-scale mode for colorblind users, improving its magnification feature (Zoom), and building in audio description on entertainment where that track is supplied.

Android L will allow users to invert and correct colors on the screen - features that will help people with low vision and color blindness.

Here's a look at a few popular applications (apps) in different categories that can help compensate for chronic, short-term or age-related disabilities.  They were featured in a webinar titled "High Quality Apps for Accessibility" by Jonathan Campbell, assistive technology specialist at the Minneapolis-based Pacer Center and Simon Technology Center, which is dedicated to making the benefits of technology more accessible to people with disabilities.  

Reading (Text-to-Speech)

  • Read2Go (IOS) 
  • Go Read (Android)
  • Voice Dream Reader 
  • EZPDF (reads PDF files, which are not readable by most screen readers)

Reading (Digital Book Players)

  • iBooks (IOS) 
  • Kindle (Amazon) Newer models have accessibility features
  • Nook (Barnes & Noble)
  • Blio (Kurzweil Technologies)


Apps with word prediction features that guess what you're typing, which allows you select the word you want from a list without having to type the whole word.

  • Fleksy
  • iReadWrite
  • Co:Writer App

App that allows you to type without repeated tapping

  • Swype

App that records audio as you type notes, and allows you to bookmark important information to find that audio fast

  • AudioNote


  • TapTapSee (Snap a photo, uploads to a server, then provides an audio description of that image)

Communication (Picture/Symbol Systems)

  • Proloquo2Go
  • Tobii Sono Flex
  • LAMP Words for Life
  • Speak for Yourself
  • My First AAC

Campbell also recommended some apps that help people remember, organize and manage tasks.  Notes and reminders can be written, spoken, or given as pictures.  Popular accessible organizational apps are:

  • Wunderlist
  • Evernote

Many of these apps - like other assistive technologies - are conveniences for the disabled and able-bodied alike.

I sometimes use the Voiceover feature on my iPad to have technical journals read to me aloud.  It's just easier than plowing through multiple-page articles published in tiny type.

And I don't even want to imagine how I would function without Evernote.  it's how I remember what I remember.

Are Voiceover, Evernote and my eyeglasses signs that I'm getting old and "losing it"?

Maybe.  But I don't care as long as they help me function.

Do you hear that, brother?

Written By Kym Reinstadler

Going Mobile

Only a few years ago, “going mobile” sounded revolutionary.

Not any more.

According to the PewResearch Internet Project, as of January 2014:

  • 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone
  • 58 percent of American adults have a smartphone (accesses the Internet)
  • 32 percent of American adults own an e-reader
  • 42 percent of American adults own a tablet computer

Some people with chronic or age-related disabilities are hesitant to try mobile devices, but J.J. Meddaugh, president of A.T. Guys in Kalamazoo, gives a good pep talk.

Meddaugh -- whose business has been selling assistive technology, training and support throughout Michigan for five years – spoke at the recent Visions conference in Ann Arbor.

For people who want accessibility features in a cell phone, but don’t want the pricey data contract that accompanies a smartphone, Meddaugh recommends the Samsung Haven, which is compatible with Verizon Wireless. It’s an “old-fashioned” flip phone with a traditional numeric keypad. All the menus and functions speak to help a user who is visually impaired make calls and send text messages. Cost is about $100.

“I recommend iPhones and iPads to most people, but I’m not a commercial for Apple,” Meddaugh said. “In fact, my phone is an Android. I can do that because I’m a geek.”

Apple builds accessibility features into all its products, Meddaugh explained. Voiceover, Apple’s screen reader, comes installed on every Apple device. A preloaded tutorial teaches the hover, tap and swipe gestures a user needs to navigate. Users can speak a command to Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant, to easily turn Voiceover on and off.

Learning Apple applications is fairly intuitive, and once you’ve learned to use one, you know how to use them all.

The interface is not so smooth on Android devices, but Meddaugh said it takes a savvy assistive technology user to work around limited accessibility features.

The most widely used screen-reading software for computers with the Windows Operating System is JAWS (Job Access With Speech), but it costs about $900.

Another good option is Window-Eyes, a full-featured screen reader that costs about $700 if bought separately but now can be downloaded free at by those who buy Microsoft Office 2010 or 2013.

There are also free screen readers. The open source reader NVDA gets high marks. Windows 7 and Windows 8 come with a basic screen reader called Narrator.

Smartphones are popular because they’re versatile and portable. Meddaugh said most people have no idea how much they’ll use it until they have one.

He recommends that anyone shopping for a smartphone delay until the iPhone 6 debuts. This version will have a bigger screen – an advantage for low-vision users who need to magnify text and users with dexterity problems.

Meddaugh encourages people to think carefully before buying any device that is built to perform a single function. Do you need a global positioning system, when you can get that feature on your phone? Most people will get more utility from downloading the Nook or Kindle apps for an iPad than buying a Nook or Kindle themselves, he said.

Another reason for assistive technology users to choose iPhones, Meddaugh said, is the BARD app. BARD stands of Braille and Audio Reading Download. Eligible readers can download books, magazines and music for free with the app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. See the BARD application instructions for criteria.

Work on a BARD app for Android is being developed but no debut is imminent.

AT Guys website is The phone number is 269-216-4798.

What is your choice of assistive technology when it comes to cell phones?