In the age of the coronavirus, helping the blind and visually impaired community feel supported and safe is more important than ever. Be My Eyes is a free mobile app with one main goal: to make the world more accessible for blind and partially sighted people. The app connects blind and partially sighted people with sighted volunteers (over 3.7 million and counting) and businesses from around the world via a live video call.
Progressive and forward-thinking brands such as Microsoft, Google and Procter and Gamble have also begun collaborating with Be My Eyes to create special customer experiences. According to the WHO, the estimated number of people with visual impairments worldwide is 285 million: 39 million are blind and 246 million are visually impaired. They represent a severely underserved market for brands looking to reach new customers and build unique new experiences and content.
I caught up with Will Butler, VP of Community, to learn more about his journey and how brands can work with this inspirational platform.
Afdhel Aziz: Will, welcome. Please tell us about your personal path and how it led you to your work at Be My Eyes?
Will Butler: I’ve spent most of my life trying to change eyesight. I used only one eye throughout high school, but mostly remained a normal “sighted” person. I drove, did all the normal things a sighted person would do. Only when I finally dried up my “good eye” at the age of 19 did I really have to deal with it. But it was another four years before I finally took the most important step: adopting a white cane.
I wrote about it in this Times article, but the cane is so stigmatized that it’s really hard for us, newly blind, to admit that we need the tools available. It’s like accepting defeat. But once you apply the tools, it’s far more than defeat: it’s total empowerment.
I think that’s what we’re doing here with Be My Eyes: giving people a tool that can transform their lives. An app that allows you to harness the power of another person’s eyes for need-based support with no strings attached? That means you don’t have to rely on friends, family, or co-workers to help you overcome your most common daily barriers. This is quite powerful when used and I think many of our users who use the app often would attest that it has changed their lives for the better.
Aziz: Thank you for sharing this will. Is it true that Be My Eyes is the largest online community for the blind? How do we get more members of the blind or visually impaired community to join?
Servant: Yes – there are very few communities that have a self-selected blind/visually impaired membership like ours, and certainly none that serves users in nearly 200 languages. Using the power of crowdsourced volunteering and translation, we were able to quickly scale our UI translation-wise to meet the needs of a global community, not just a US-based or westernized community. This is something we are very proud of and it is particularly rewarding to see Be My Eyes being used in parts of the world where there is little to no service – it is truly becoming a lifeline for blind people in rural and underdeveloped parts of the world .
Due to medical data regulations and privacy concerns, many companies have no idea who their blind users are. That’s why companies – even big ones with their own video chat apps like Microsoft and Google – come to Be My Eyes for this portal into the blindness community. Be My Eyes is known around the world as the go-to place to get support as a blind person and that’s why companies join our platform as a support provider to meet customers and users where they already are.
Ultimately, we grow as a community through word of mouth: the power of our message, both from the volunteers and other blind users, drives us forward as a community. Growing the blind community is a fascinating and difficult challenge for which at Be My Eyes I take the most responsibility. We have strong connections with organizations for the blind around the world who provide direct services and make sure they know about us. We attend and speak at conferences. And we use the same digital marketing tools as everyone else!
Historically blind people were very isolated – they had a very nurturing relationship with their sighted friends and family – and were not directly connected to traditional channels of information. It’s different today. Blind people have incredibly accessible technology that runs natively on iOS and Android devices. So you can reach blind people directly by searching for interests, just like you can reach someone who likes cats, sports or golf. That’s pretty cool and a sign that blind people have come a long way in terms of participating in society.
Aziz: That’s pretty cool. There is something heartwarming about the fact that you have so many sighted volunteers (4 million) – why do you think that is?
Servant: I don’t care what anyone says: helping other people is the most basic aspect of human nature. We all attend to our needs: food, water, sleep, etc. But helping others – having an understanding of ourselves in relation to other beings – is what raises us above animals. Be My Eyes gives people who are looking for meaning – and let’s face it, we all are – an opportunity to break out of the “smartphone zombie” loop and connect with a real human being in a powerful way.
There’s the simple task: a straightforward, solvable A-to-B interaction. Then there’s the knowledge that you’ve helped someone, the sense of connection and meaning it conveys. I have never seen such a dopamine boost from any other app. This is why we are approaching 4 million volunteers and this is why people are using social media so freely and openly to share their experiences. I couldn’t think of a better bridge between people for these strange virtual times we are living in now.
In part 2 of this interview (click here) we examine how brands like Microsoft, Google and others collaborate with Be My Eyes to create unique customer experiences.