Graphic: Tips for Be My Eyes volunteers from a vision impaired user.

Be My Eyes volunteers

How to be a Be My Eyes volunteer and effectively help people with vision loss.

Since he is used to helping me with various tasks, my brother decided to download the Be My Eyes app and learn how to be a Be My Eyes volunteer. I use the Be My Eyes app often, and was curious to see what guidelines the volunteers are given for helping people with blindness and low vision. My brother and I were surprised to find out that there were no resources available for Be My Eyes volunteers to learn how to help vision impaired users. Today, I will be sharing my tips for Be My Eyes volunteers from a vision impaired user.

What is Be My Eyes?

Be My Eyes is a free smartphone app for iOS and Android. Be My Eyes connects blind and low vision users with sighted volunteers or company representatives for visual assistance through a live video connection. In more basic terms, it allows users to have a sighted person on demand through video chat. There is no limit for how often a user can access Be My Eyes, and the service is free to use. The app also can be used from anywhere in the world, with no language restrictions.

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About Be My Eyes users

Be My Eyes users are people that have low vision or blindness. It’s hard to define a typical user, because people with vision impairments come from all backgrounds and all different corners of the world. However, I’m going to list a few examples of users you may encounter as a volunteer. The user and volunteer remain anonymous during calls.

User 1- V

V is a college student in the United States with low vision who lives by themselves. They have trouble reading small print and distinguishing objects. Example tasks they might ask for are reading labels, checking prices at the store, and finding lost objects in their dorm.

User 2- J

J is an older adult who sees floaters and works at a store. The floaters make it difficult to read text, distinguish where people are located, and to find objects around them. Example tasks they might ask for are identifying products, seeing where people are located in a room, and finding items on shelves.

User 3- L

L is a professor who has no usable eyesight. They frequently need assistance with identifying colors, picking out groceries at the store, and reading signs. Example tasks they might ask for are asking about colors, checking expiration dates on items, and locating a room in a building.

There’s no way to tell which type of user you will get. Work with the assumption that the user has no usable vision, but don’t be surprised if the user has some eyesight, even if they use a cane or guide dog. Only a very small part of the blindness and low vision population experience complete loss of eyesight with no visual references for objects.

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Registering for Be My Eyes as a volunteer

Here are the instructions for how to be a Be My Eyes volunteer:

  1. Download the Be My Eyes app and accept the terms of service
  2. Sign up with your name and email, or connect a social account such as Google or Facebook
  3. Select which language or languages you can help in.
  4. All done!

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Answering a call

When a blind or low vision user requests help, a notification is sent to several volunteers indicating that a user needs assistance. The first person to answer a call is the one who gets to help. During a call, the volunteer has a full screen display of the user’s video and can hear them speak. The user can hear the volunteer’s audio during the call, but no video of the volunteer is transmitted. At the end of a call, the volunteer is rated with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Make sure you understand the user’s request

“Can you help me find a pair of shoes?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to help you find your parachute.”

“What? No, I asked for help finding a pair of shoes.”

When the user requests for help, repeat their request back to them. This way, you can ensure that you are helping them with the correct task and this can save time later on. You can also ask for clarifying information as needed when repeating the request. For example, “I can help you find a pair of shoes. Do you need dress shoes or casual shoes?”

Avoid using general location words

Imagine you are calling your friend and asking where they are. You are wondering where their specific location is, since you can’t see them to know where they are. Instead of telling you a specific place, your friend says they are in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with no indication as to where they could be.

Can you see how speaking in general location terms can be really frustrating?

Common examples of general location words include:

Now imagine you are calling your friend and asking where they are. Your friend tells you they are on their college campus, inside the student center on the third floor.

This is a much more specific and helpful answer!

Instead of using general location words, use more specific terms:

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Read information exactly how it’s displayed

“Hey, why is my arm turning orange?”

“I’m not sure, let me look at this product label.”

“I had someone read the label for me, they just said it might make things turn colors but didn’t say what.”

“Well, I’m reading it right now. It says specifically that it can turn your arm bright orange. Let’s fix this.”

The scenario listed above shows the importance of reading information in its entirety, as well as reading information verbatim. Don’t try to paraphrase or ignore lines of information that someone asks you to read. Instead, read all of the information that is listed, and ask the user to move the camera to ensure everything is accounted for.

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Use color names and additional details

Even though they may not have any usable eyesight, people who are blind still know what colors are. Don’t worry about over-describing things when asked what color they are, just say the name of the color. When possible, add other details that may be helpful or that could help the user make a choice when needed.

Here are some examples of how to describe an objects- in this case, clothes:

If the user asks for help in picking out an outfit, don’t be afraid to tell them what goes together and what doesn’t. For example, if someone made an outfit with the four example objects I listed above, I would tell them that none of those items go together!

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Don’t be afraid to ask them to move the camera

If you need to see information that isn’t in the display window, ask the user to move their camera accordingly. Use specific directions and words, and work with them until everything you need is within view. For example, when I asked a Be My Eyes volunteer to help me locate towels, they asked if I could move my phone a bit to the right so they could see the room better. I was able to understand their request and move accordingly.

Be mature

This should be common sense, but please don’t use the app to mess with people or give them false information. In addition, do not ask users any prying questions about their disability or personal information. Users are able to rate their experience after a call and can report inappropriate behavior at any time.

Also, if you see a blind or vision impaired person out on the street, do not rush to help them and invade their personal space. Even if you have experience helping people with blindness and low vision, the person may not want your help. Instead, walk up to them, identify yourself, and ask if they need assistance before offering your arm. Just ask, don’t grab!

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Final thoughts

I am grateful for all of the volunteers on Be My Eyes and appreciate that they can help me with so many basic tasks. Volunteers are always in demand, but volunteers who speak languages other than English or multiple language are in the highest demand right now. I highly recommend signing up and learning how to be a Be My Eyes volunteer, as it is a great volunteer opportunity and easy way to help others with living an independent life.

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,
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