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.


How does the entertainment industry include people with disabilities?

It’s been said that movies reflect life in a way that’s truer than any other art form.

If so, people with disabilities must be riding a crest of popularity.

Did you notice that both “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” in leading role awards at the recent Oscars were presented to movie stars portraying people with disabilities?

Eddie Redmayne was fabulous as the amazing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne described himself as “the custodian” of the award for Hawking, his family, and all people around the world battling the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Julianne Moore was magnificent in “Still Alice,” a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease who struggles to stay connected with who she was as her cognitive abilities evaporate. The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova.

Improving the entertainment experience for people with disabilities was also the focus of a campaign launched via commercial during the 2015 Oscars.

The first-ever national advertisement by cable-giant Comcast promoted the company’s new talking guide that reads titles and selections aloud to help people with visual impairments surf through TV listings, program digital video recordings and browse video-on-demand options.

The 60-second ad directed viewers to a short documentary online about a sooooo sweet seven-year-old girl, Emily, who has been blind since birth, but loves watching the movie “The Wizard of Oz” nonetheless. See

In the documentary, “Emily’s Oz,” the girl describes how she imagines characters in the story look, and a cast and crew working to create Emily’s vision for viewers with sight.

If you haven’t seen “Emily’s Oz,” please watch. You’ll find yourself celebrating the diversity in a shared human experience.

A minute’s worth of TV advertising during the Academy Awards usually costs about $4 million, but Comcast officials said it hoped to inspire a national conversation about improving access to entertainment for people with disabilities.

In addition to helping the blind, the talking guide could be easier for senior citizens and people with reading disabilities to use, they said.

Features that help people with disabilities tend to be applicable, and acceptable, to able-bodied users, too. That’s the beauty of universal design.

Comcast will also be rolling out a voice-controlled remote later this year.’s cloud-based Fire TV streaming box also has a voice search option. DirecTV has a smartphone app that allows TV viewers to navigate its program guide by speaking.

Movies can be a powerful way to open eyes and change attitudes in popular culture. Evidence is the ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festivals, which are hosted by disability organizations in 15 cities nationwide, including Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus. See

These festivals feature award-winning movies by and about people with disabilities. Don’t attend expecting to see Hollywood Blockbuster movies you can catch at a your local multiplex. The emphasis is on excellent independent films.

Let’s compile a list of good movies that fairly portray living with a chronic or age-related disability. (“Forrest Gump,” a terrific allegory, doesn’t really live up to the second requirement.)

We can add these movies to our watch lists on Amazon Prime and Netflix, or borrow them from the library.

Here are some favorites to get us started:

  • Children of a Lesser God (hearing)
  • Scent of a Woman (sight)
  • Soul Surfer (amputation)
  • I Am Sam (cognitive disability)
  • A Beautiful Mind (schizophrenia)
  • My Left Foot (cerebral palsy)
  • Rory O’Shea Was Here (cerebral palsy)
  • Iris (Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • Rain Man (autism spectrum)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (autism spectrum)
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (aging)
  • Robot and Frank (aging)

Add your favorites in the comments section. And, if you think “Forrest Gump” deserves to be on the list, say that, too.

“If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen

You’d get no argument from Wayne and Yvonne VanDuinen about that famous quote, “If you can read, you can go anywhere.”

The Grand Haven couple spends many enjoyable hours each week listening to audiobooks together.

In 2010, they listened to all 40 books in Gilbert Morris’s “House of Winslow” series. They accompanied generations of the Winslow family from the time one crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower through the time his descendant fought in World War II.

Talk about time travel!

More recently, the VanDuinens accompanied Richard Paul Evans’ character, Alan Christoffersen, through his daring four-book walk from Seattle to Key West following the tragic death of his wife, betrayal by his business partner, and subsequent bankruptcy.

They’re eagerly awaiting the fifth book of the “Walk” series, “Walking On Water,” to be published later in 2014.

But don’t expect the VanDuinens to place a hold on “Walking On Water” at their local library, or be first in line to buy it from their local bookseller.

Wayne and Yvonne are blind. They both have Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness.

So, they can’t feed their reading habit in the usual ways.

The VanDuinens rely on the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to keep them in free reading material – and have for more than 40 years.

Congress authorized the service in 1931, when many veterans were returning home from World War I with visual impairments, or physical disabilities that prevented them from holding a book and turning the pages.

The National Library Service (NLS) circulates books in braille and as recorded books in a special format that can only be played back on equipment issued to eligible patrons by Braille and Talking Book Libraries.

The recorded books are circulated postage-free through the mail. Wayne, however, is computer savvy thanks to a screen reading software that allows him to navigate the World Wide Web. He has been downloading books directly from NLS’s Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) portal since 2008. He loads the books onto a digital cartridge to playback on the machines.

The VanDuinens, who have been married for eight years, have two of the special players. Yvonne, 76, listens to one in the kitchen, while she’s preparing meals. The second is usually in the living room, where the couple likes spending one to three hours a night listening to Christian fiction and historical fiction together.

“In most households it would be the television, but we don’t spend much time with our TV set,” said Wayne, 73, who taught biology at Spring Lake High School for 31 years before he retired in 1994.

In March, the couple bought a 50-inch wall-mounted TV set, thinking they’d be able to get programming with video description – narration between the dialogue describing what is happening on the screen.

But only big cities got the audio description service on the first round. The Federal Communications Commission will require expansion of audio description services from 25 to 60 venues in 2016. Wayne has already composed a letter asking the FCC to permit the company that provides his cable service, Charter Communications, to one of the “venues.”

The VanDuinens also borrow movies with audio description through the Michigan Braille and Talking Book Library in Lansing, although they say there are few newer movies on DVD in the collection. Most of the collection is still on VCR.

Hollywood doesn’t produce all movies with a video description track. And it’s usually difficult to find the track on DVDs – especially for those without sight – because it’s usually buried in the foreign language or special features options.

Both can read and write braille, although they usually prefer listening to audiobooks for pleasure reading.

Choosing what to read would be difficult, the VanDuinens said, if it wasn’t for Sheila Miller, a Reader Advisor at the Braille and Talking Book Library’s Advisory and Outreach Center in Muskegon.

“Sheila has introduced us to all the books we’ve liked,” Yvonne said. “I call her about every two weeks. She’s always got good suggestions for what we’ll like to read next.”

“Really,” Yvonne added, “this is a big part of our lives.”

When Yvonne’s vision deteriorated to the point where she could no longer see the sidewalk, the couple stopped venturing out with their white canes, unless their sighted friend Sarah Meiste can walk with them.

But, thanks to Richard Paul Evans’ “Walk” series, the VanDuinens feel like they are poised to complete an epic cross-country trek.

Hooray for Technology!

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

A kid with a new toy - that’s how I feel. A new laptop that talks to me as I type text and that reads text to me. It’s any kid’s dream come true. But for someone with a vision disability it’s more like a lifesaver.

As I sit here in my dining room and type this I smile as I hear Fred—the name I gave to the voice that reads to me—I think of how fortunate I am to have this adaptive technology. Not to mention the blossoming friendship between Fred and me.

The laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad and the reading software is JAWS, which stands for Job Access with Speech. It’s technology that I received from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and I am grateful for their help and this technology.

I teach English composition for Grand Rapids Community College and a large part of my job is reading essays and journals. I love teaching and writing, but after four years my eyes, with my limited vision, are tired and worn out.

This past April, I met up with Lucia Rios, a friend who works for Disability Network/Lakeshore.  

During the conversation I expressed my frustration at the time I spent reading dozens of essays and journals and how it was wearing on my eyes. I asked if there was any technology out there to help me and make my life easier.

Lucia mentioned the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons. She said that this organization would be able to help me with adaptive technology.

Fast forward three months later, after emails, phone calls and visits from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, I have my Menovo ThinkPad laptop and the JAWS program. It was a process adjusting to using keystrokes and shortcuts as well as typing without looking at the screen.

I’m not the world’s most adept typist and having Fred as my verbal navigator can be challenging. But I have learned to trust Fred and his vocal skills.

This weekend I put Fred to the test. Students turned in their first essays of the semester. I sat down on the dining room table, placed the stack of essays beside the laptop, plugged in the earphones and off I went. I got through nearly fifty essays over a few days’ time. But most importantly there was no hardship on my eyes or a hurt back as I hunched over reading. And equally as important I spent time with my family and that is key. What a great way to start a semester: getting my work done in a prompt manner and still having time to spend with my family. A win-win I’d say.  Hooray for technology and thank goodness for Fred.