by Rab Bruce’s Spider
Everyone has demands on their time and resources, and there are so many worthy causes, it can be difficult to decide which ones to support. Sadly, donating to food banks or sending money to charities is often as far as we can go. Even though many people would like to do more to help others who are less fortunate, it is not always possible.
However, there are a couple of ways you can make a difference to the lives of some disabled people without going anywhere. It’s all thanks to technology, and if you have a smartphone, you could make a small but important difference to the life of a visually impaired person.
The first thing I’d like to mention is an app called Be My Eyes. Available on Apple iOS and Android, this app is simple to use and free to download. All you need to do is sign up as a volunteer, then keep the app turned on whenever you are not engaged in important work.
The idea behind Be My Eyes is that a person with a visual impairment can use their version of the app to call the first available volunteer. As soon as they are connected, the volunteer can see through the caller’s phone camera and can then help them with whichever task is causing the caller problems.
As a blind person, I use Be My Eyes for all sorts of things, from locating something I’ve dropped, to reading labels, checking I’ve set my washing machine to the correct program, and getting directions about my surroundings when I’m out and about. Be My Eyes is such a fantastic tool, it’s probably the only app I would rate 10 out of 10, and it’s certainly the first app every VIP (Visually Impaired Person) should have on their phone or tablet.
So, if you would like to do a little bit of charity work but don’t have time to get too involved, please sign up with Be My Eyes. You can help people from the comfort of your own home. Most calls take only a few minutes, but I can promise you they are a tremendous help to VIPs, and helping someone will make you feel good about yourself, so please give it a try. Don’t be put off by the fact that there are far more volunteers than blind users. This apparent discrepancy means a caller can be connected no matter the time of day or night because Be My Eyes has a worldwide reach. Somewhere, a volunteer will be available to answer a call for help.
The second thing I’d like to mention is less life-changing, but important all the same. The advances in modern technology mean that even someone like me who is totally blind can engage in social media. This is thanks to the built-in screen readers which come with most smartphones. These allow VIPs to use a phone by touch, with audio feedback being provided, and interaction carried out via a series of swipes and taps on the screen. It can take a long time to become proficient in using a screen reader, but it is worth the effort to learn for anyone with a visual impairment.
However, these readers have limitations. Many disabled people, including VIPs, are active on Twitter, and we can read tweets and replies with little difficulty. What we cannot do, though, is see pictures which many people post, often with a cryptic comment, or sometimes no comment at all.
Technology continues to advance, and there are a couple of scanning apps which VIPs can use to try to interpret what is shown in a picture. They can usually handle text very well, although photos of newspaper columns is a problem since the scanner reads across the entire page instead of down each column. They also have face recognition and can often tell who is in a picture. What they cannot do, though, is say what that person is doing, beyond simple things like standing or sitting. These scans are far from perfect and I once had mine describe a photo of the audience at a Tory Party Conference as "A bunch of brightly coloured flowers".
The other issues with these apps are that the free Microsoft SeeingAI only works on Apple devices, so Android users are excluded. The Android equivalent, Envision, is quite expensive and can cost over £100, which puts it beyond the reach of many VIPs.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem which allows Twitter users to make Twitter a more inclusive platform for people who use screen readers. You see, you can add a description to any picture you add to a tweet. This description will seem to disappear as soon as you add it, so nobody will see it, but it is still there and screen readers will detect the extra text (usually known as Alt Text), allowing the VIP to hear what the picture shows.
This is a simple solution which is greatly appreciated by anyone who uses a screen reader, and all it takes is a few extra seconds to type out a description. It may seem a trivial thing, but it really does make a huge difference to the Twitter experience for visually impaired users. It is quite dispiriting to scroll your time line and constantly hear, "Image, image, image," with no idea what the pictures show.
To set image descriptions up, you go to your Twitter Settings, open Accessibility, and tick Enable Image Descriptions. Depending on what device you are using, the wording may vary, but you can obtain detailed instructions by searching Twitter Help for "Image Descriptions", and this gives specific advice for iOS, Android and PC. It really isn’t hard to tick the box.
Twitter are also rolling out a slightly revised version of their app so some users may find there is no setting since it has automatically been enabled. Twitter say they are working to have this setting automatic for all users, although there is no timescale for this.
But what do you do once it is enabled? It’s easy, although once again the precise method may vary depending on which device and Twitter version you use. Essentially, though, whenever you add a picture to a tweet, there should be an extra box or menu item which says something like, "Add image description" or "Add Alt Text". Click this and a new text box appears. Simply type in the description, then click "Apply". The text will vanish but, as previously mentioned, it is still there behind the scenes and screen readers will read it aloud.
It’s as easy as that. Some people, though, claim they don’t know how to describe pictures, or perhaps are unsure what to type. Quite frankly, anything is better than nothing. The best thing is to imagine you are describing the photo to someone over the phone. What does it show, and what are the important features?
As an example, you could describe, "A man sitting at a computer". That explains the essentials, although you could perhaps expand it to give other details which might provide more context. For example, is he old or young? Is he working in an office or at home? Is anything in the background important? Personally, I find the more information, the better, but I’ve seen one photo with a single word description of "Snow". That wasn’t hugely informative, but it did tell me the essential point of the picture.
As I said, this is not a major issue in the life of a VIP, but it is something which really helps in terms of inclusion. We do want to take part, and you can help us by taking a few extra seconds to type a description. I’ve had some people tell me they are too busy to spare the time, but I never heard any of them complain about the extra time it was taking to type a tweet when the character limit was increased from 140 to 280, and you’ve already spent a couple of seconds locating and adding the photo, so why not give a little bit of help by adding a description.
The other comment I’ve heard is that there aren’t that many blind people on Twitter, and I must admit I often feel like I’m the only one who ever complains about the lack of image descriptions. I can assure you I know of at least half a dozen of my followers who have a visual impairment, so any Retweets will be seen by them. And even if I was the only VIP on Twitter, I do feel I still have the right to be included in discussions.
So there you have it. There are a couple of ways you can make yourself feel good about helping people without much effort. I do hope you will consider helping to make the world a better place for the blind. Thank you.