Tech that opens eyes: How apps help connect the blind and seeing worlds

Single-purpose, assistive devices have given way to more accessible – and affordable – apps. Perhaps just as valuable is the glimpse into the capable lives of people with limited vision that apps like BlindWays offer.

Graphic illustration of a woman holding a smartphone in front of her eyes to use Be My Eyes app

Illustration by Jacob Turcotte/Christian Science Monitor Staff

September 11, 2017

When asked how technology might improve the lives of people with vision impairments, Joann Becker presented a deceptively simple challenge.

“Well,” the tech specialist recalls saying, “I’d like to be able to find my bus stop.”

Navigating Boston’s transit system can be challenging for any commuter. But for blind riders, like Ms. Becker, each bus stop and train platform presents a unique challenge.

GPS technology is only accurate to within 30 feet or so – not a problem for sighted commuters, but that “last 30 feet of frustration” could mean missing the bus entirely for those who are blind or have low vision.

Funded by a $750,000 Google Grant, Becker and her colleagues at Perkins Solutions, the technology arm of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., proposed BlindWays, a mobile app that provides visually impaired commuters with clues and landmarks for each stop, crowd-sourced from sighted users.

BlindWays is just one of many recent app store entries marketed toward the visually impaired. The tech industry has long offered solutions to help people with disabilities maintain their independence. But with the rise of smartphones, clunky and expensive devices designed for just one purpose have given way to more accessible – and affordable – apps.

What’s more, the near ubiquity of smartphones has made it easy for sighted users to lend a hand, making sure that apps like BlindWays stay up to date, while taking a few moments out of their day to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Since the app’s launch, volunteers have submitted some 6,000 clues for Greater Boston’s 8,000 bus stops. 

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