We continue the series about tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace – this time looking at apps that use artificial intelligence (AI) to convert text and images into an audio format.
There are many such apps on the market, ranging in price from free to approximately R1500. The apps usually take a photograph of the text or image to be recognized and transmit it to the cloud for conversion. The process is usually fast and fairly accurate, though this may depend from product to product. The apps I usually use are Seeing AI, developed by Microsoft and available on the Apple app store at no cost, and Voice OCR Document Reader, developed by Shalin Shah, which costs around R80 at the time of writing.
I’ve also recently been looking at an app called Voice Dream Scanner, which I like since it does the conversion on the phone itself and so doesn’t need an internet connection – an asset considering the issue of confidentiality of information. It retails for around R100 on the app store and I’ve heard great reports on how well it works.
Of course, the far more important question is how apps like these could be used in the workplace.
The answer is pretty much anywhere where an employee who is blind wants or needs to access print material or even get help reading a computer screen, if for some reason the screen reader has stopped working.
Though more and more offices are becoming paperless nowadays, apps like these can still mean an employee who is blind would be able to access print documents like meting minutes and agendas, industry magazines and books, printed reports and some handwritten notes. though I fear we’re still a long way from an app that would be able to decipher my illegible scrawl!
I’m going to be stepping away from this series on tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace for a few weeks while I share some information on one of my other passions – travel, with a special focus on travel for persons with disabilities.
But I’m far from done on this topic – there are still a lot more tools I’d like to share with you to help raise awareness of the reality that blindness shouldn’t be a barrier to employment with all the tools that are available to us.
Those of you following this series of articles about tools to help a blind person be independently productive in the workplace may be asking how we engage with paper documents and physical objects we need to operate.
The answer is quite simple – there’s an app for that! It’s called Be My Eyes, is free to download onto a mobile phone and is available on both IOS and Android phones.
Here’s how it works: I open the app on my smart phone and hit the “Call Next Available Volunteer” button. My data call gets picked up by one of the volunteers, who are able to use the phone camera so I can borrow their eyesight to identify objects, read printed material or a computer screen (or even handwriting). The volunteers can also help me find dropped objects or help me navigate around places.
Can you see how this would help someone who is blind in the workplace?
It can help me do anything from reading print material to using the coffee machine in the workplace. As a blind person, one of my greatest challenges is access to printed information. With an app like Be My Eyes that’s no longer such a problem.
With more than 2 million volunteers around the world, speaking more than 190 languages, and less than 200 000 visually impaired users so far, I’m sure you’ll realize I won’t be waiting long for my call to be picked up. The calls are free, and you can call as often as you need to.
Imagine how an app like Be My Eyes can empower someone who’s blind, not only in the home, but in the workplace as well.
You can find out more about Be My Eyes on their website: www.bemyeyes.com or on social media.
Of course, Be My Eyes is only one of the tools we ca use in the workplace to access information – next time I’ll be looking at some of the multitude of apps using artificial intelligence to help us access the information we need to be productive in a job.
Back in the dim and distant past when I became blind, using a computer was a very different process from what it is now. Back then I had to use a special computer that barely resembled the computers my friends were using, and the amount I could do with it was limited.
Nowadays I, and many other blind people, use a standard laptop or desktop together with a software application called a screen reader. With a screen reader we’re able to accomplish almost anything that a sighted person can. Which means that we should be able to fulfil the requirements of most of the many jobs requiring the use of a computer.
Essentially, a screen reader is a programme that allows us to interact with a computer using audio. We have the option to either type or dictate to create documents, e-mails, spreadsheets or other text-based programmes. We can access menus, online content and documents created by others using the audio functionality. And there are ways we can access the content in images, graphs and diagrams.
So why then do so many people have difficulty in believing that a blind person could be successful in a job?
Maybe they believe that the software to allow a blind person to use a computer is expensive. And, certainly some of the screen readers do have a cost associated with them – as do many other software programmes used in business. But there are many different types of screen readers available nowadays, at a range of price points.
In fact, screen readers are in-built into several operating systems at no extra cost – IOS/Mac, Android, Microsoft are a few that spring to mind. That’s not to mention the many other applications that are out there – JAWS, Supernova, NVDA to name but a few.
And sure, each of these differ in what they offer and what they cost. But, for the purposes of this article, that’s detail and would depend on the preferences of the individual, the needs of the organisation, and the tasks required.
My point remains the same – with so many jobs being accessible to someone who is blind, why aren’t there more blind people being employed?
If you want to learn more about how I use a computer in my work life, please feel free to contact me through my website: www.loisstrachan.com and let’s chat about what I can and cannot do using a computer… I’m almost willing to bet you’d be amazed!
In my next article in this series I’m going to be talking about an app that helps the blind community to access print material and other physical objects more easily – or, maybe I should say one of the ways, since there are a few that I’ll be talking about in this series.
Many years ago I met an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his sight. His family were trying to find ways to help him begin picking up some of the things he’d loved doing before. Yet, each time I offered him an idea of some of the tools he might be able to use, his response was
“I won’t be able to use it because I’m blind.”
There’s an old saying that it’s a poor workman who blames their tools. And with the remarkable range of tools that are available to help us access information and navigate the world in which we live, I don’t believe we, as visually impaired people, can in all honesty claim that a lack of usable tools stops us from living independent lives.
Whether I’m using my guide dog Fiji to help me navigate from one place to another, a screen reader to help me access applications on my laptop or iPhone, using image conversion apps to access written information, or using a simple coffee mug to help me measure out rice for a risotto meal, tools are an essential part of my daily life – and they’re pretty much everywhere I look.
But being able to access a tool isn’t enough on its own. Even having the knowledge of how to use the tool isn’t sufficient. Because a tool is only as good as the person who’s using it. And it’s only when we use a tool to help us accomplish a task that it increases our independence.
I know for myself that I’ll only start using a new tool if I can see the value in doing so. If a tool will help me accomplish a task faster, or more efficiently, or if it’ll help me achieve a goal. In other words if it’s adds to my life.
I currently have a few apps on my iPhone that I’ve never used. I downloaded them because they sounded interesting. But I’ve never needed to use them so I haven’t even opened them. Eventually I guess I’ll either find a use for them… or I’ll simply delete them and move on.
Tools can be an important factor in helping a blind or visually impaired person to achieve greater levels of independence, but only if we are empowered with the knowledge of how to use them effectively and if we can see the value they’ll add to our lives. I am truly grateful for all the tools I have at my disposal – with them I can do almost anything I want or need to do.
PS: Fiji asked me to assure you that she‘s far more than just a tool – she’s a companion, a source of hours of enjoyment and entertainment and a great exercise partner for me as well.
The photo shows me and my favourite tool walking down a road.
When is it okay to ask for help if you’re disabled, and when isn’t it? That’s today’s $60 million question.
A few weeks ago I needed to extract information from 50 business cards. Yes, it would have been quicker, and easier, and more effective for me to ask a sighted person to help me. Instead I chose to do it on my own. And I managed, with the help of a clever little app called Braigo, which converted the text into a form I could access. But here’s the thing: that task took me 3 full days; three full days when I had other tasks waiting for me.
Every day I face the same dilemma. Should I ask my husband/a friend/a family member/a random stranger walking down the road to help me do something. Or should I insist on proving to myself and others that I am able to do it despite being blind. Sadly, even though I know it’ll take me a lot longer to do it myself, that’s usually the choice I make.
So, today I’m asking myself why I do it?
Perhaps it’s a question of pride, of not wanting to feel like I’m always asking for help. Perhaps it’s my inherent stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge that my blindness means that some tasks are harder for me, or will take me longer. And yes, there is an immense sense of satisfaction of doing the things I can. But when faced with a mountain of items on my To Do List and a molehill of time in which to do them, even I have to admit that my insistence on doing things for myself isn’t always the most productive use of my time and energy.
Many of the blindness training centres around the world stress the need for independence in all aspects of life. And I understand why they do so –they want us to learn the crucial skill of figuring out how to do things on our own rather than taking the easy way out and asking our support system. Being forced to be independent teaches us that we can do far More than we believed possible. But I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder if the focus on doing things for ourselves might make us feel we’re failing if we reach out for assistance.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stop doing things for myself. Nor am I going to stop learning new skills and techniques to make me more independent. Or constantly testing out new devices and apps to help me do so.
But maybe I should recognize that asking for help isn’t always taboo. That sometimes getting a sighted person to help me with a task will make me more productive and allow me to cross a few more items off my ever-growing To Do List. And that efficiency may be more important than pride and stubbornness.
Because, let’s face it, even sighted people have to ask for help sometimes, don’t they?
The photo show me working at my computer with a pile of business cards. Thanks to Craig Strachan for the photo.
So, here we are at blog 200 – if anyone had told me back in June 2015 that I would surpass the 200 blog point I’d probably have laughed at them. I kind of thought blogging was something I’d do every now and then when I had something important to share. And maybe that’s still true. It’s just that I seem to have a fairly constant supply of important things to share with you.
Like the subject of today’s blog – an app called Be My Eyes. Here’s the description of the app taken from their website: “Be My Eyes is a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers. On the app, volunteers assist blind and low vision users through a live video connection and work together to tackle challenges and handle a wide range of tasks. The app harnesses the power of generosity , technology, and human connection to help blind and low vision people lead more independent lives. Be My Eyes is accessible in more than 150 countries worldwide and in over 180 languages. The app is free and available for both IOS and Android.”
You may be wondering how Be My Eyes benefits the lives of those with visual impairment. Well, here’s my response to that.
Even though it doesn’t happen often, there are times when having sight would simply make my life a little easier – finding something I’ve dropped on what suddenly feels like a huge expanse of open floor space, reading a document that isn’t in an accessible format, , or an actual print document. I’ve used Be My Eyes to find out what colour an item of clothing is – yes, sometimes I buy the same item in different colours because they’re just so comfortable. Or finding out the contents of a tin, without having to open it.
I agree totally with whomever it was who said that blindness is not about ability, it’s about access to information. And sometimes having a helping hand – or a helping eye – like Be My Eyes is what we need to access that information.
Here are some of my favourite things about Be My Eyes. Not only is the added access to information great, so is the range of languages spoken by the volunteers – including many of our Southern African languages. It’s quick and easy to get connected to a volunteer –there are about 15 times the number of volunteers as registered blind users. There’s no limit to the number or duration of data calls you make, though I’d think it’s only fair to tell the volunteer if you think it may be a long or complex task.
And here’s a personal story – a few weeks ago Be My Eyes was featured quite a lot on Facebook and several of my friends shared one of their videos on my wall. Another of my friends watched the video and signed up as a volunteer, though she told me she doubted she’d ever be called on to assist someone since there were so many volunteers already. Her first call came in a day or two later…
If you’re interested in finding out more about Be My Eyes, either to sign up as a visually impaired user, or as a volunteer, simply download the app from either of the app-stores find them on almost any social media platform, or take a look at their website – www.bemyeyes.com
￼Isn’t it funny that my first article on my last three overseas trips have been about in-flight entertainment and, more particularly, audio described movies on that in-flight entertainment – or the lack thereof.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, audio description is a way that blind and visually impaired people can follow the action taking place onscreen. As the name suggests, the action is described in words along with the usual soundtrack of the movie. Sure, there are movies where the plot is driven by dialogue and we can follow more of what’s going on. But many movies – thrillers, action, horror, and cartoons, for example –are far more visual and it’s hard to follow what’s happening without help.
Admittedly I’m a fairly new convert to audio described movies but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve come to expect them to be part of the in-flight entertainment on a long distance flight. So I was distressed when I found no audio described movies on the 11 hour KLM flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam.
Maybe I’d misled myself into thinking all airlines had audio described movies on international flights simply because Emirates Airlines does. Granted, we haven’t used other airlines in a while for overseas travel. I’d love to know what other airlines also include movies that take the needs of their disabled passengers into consideration – please let me know if you’ve experienced any that do.
At least I had my trusty iPhone and book reader with me on my flight so I had plenty to keep me entertained. Still, I’d have liked to have the ability to choose whether or not to watch an accessible movie…
Isn’t life unbelievable? Mere weeks after I posted a lament that I couldn’t find an accessible word search, I found one, and a whole lot more great word and trivia games – all in one place!
It happened like this: a blind friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was looking for a word game she could play on her iPhone using Voice Over (the in-build screen reader app on IOS products). Of course I replied with a suggestion to try Seven Little Words, a word builder game I’ve been enjoying for some time. Someone else mentioned something called Huboodle and I couldn’t resist downloading the app to take a look….
Huboodle is a game pack designed by AppA11y Inc. , which currently includes 8 different games, though more could be added in the future. It’s a free app with some in-app purchases but these are in no way necessary for you to play any of the games. It’s available in several languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish and is completely accessible using Voice Over. But don’t be misled into thinking the games are only for people who are visually impaired. There are many sighted people who also enjoy playing – the accessibility is just an added bonus.
Amongst those 8 games are two accessible word search games. I was so surprised when I saw that I almost fell off my chair. Then I almost jumped to my feet and danced with joy.
Strangely enough I’ve only played one word search so far. I’ve been enjoying some of the other games, Word Builder and Trivia Trail.
Word Builder is a game where you build as many words as you can from a selection of letters you’re given. Each level has different letter groups and a different target of words to find. You also gain extra points for finding words that aren’t on the list they give you, so it’s a great game for anyone with a fair vocabulary. I must admit I get particular pleasure every time I find those bonus words.
The other game I’m really enjoying is Trivia Trail. The goal is to work your way through 10 multichoice trivia questions within a limited amount of time. I’ve heard the time limit is 50 seconds but it feels a lot longer when I’m actually playing. The added trick is that you go back to the start of the level if you get a question wrong which takes extra time.
Sure, Huboodle also has some games of chance and I’ve dabbled with poker, blackjack and the wheel of fortune but none of them have really grabbed me. I guess I’m just not a gambler by nature. Other games I haven’t tried so far are a memory game, Simon Says, a multiplayer Ludo board game called Ludo Palooza and, of course, there are the two word search games which attracted me in the first place.
Okay, enough time writing… I’ve got some more words to build!
In my last post I referred to a recent article from the Cape Argus newspaper. It’s relevant to this post as well – here’s a link to the article if you want to read it: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-argus/20180502/281814284483805
The Cape Argus article says that companies should have budget specifically for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. In the case of visual impairment this would tend to be technology to help us access information, like screen readers, and text or object recognition products. The perception is that these technologies are prohibitively expensive.
Here’s my thoughts on that perception…
I’m not going to argue that we don’t need these technologies – looking at how much time I spend on my laptop and smart phone with accessible software I find it hard to remember how we used to cope before. What I’m arguing is the perception – the assumption – that it’s expensive to provide these digital accommodations.
Sure, some commercial software solutions do carry a cost, but these are not the only solutions. And I think the decision of whether to pay for a commercial solution will depend on the perceived value. Certainly, in South Africa, the commercial solutions are out of reach of many individuals so, if the employer decides this is the way they want to go it would probably be at the employer’s expense.
Let’s look at some of the other options:
Over the past few years the assistive technology landscape has changed. Increasingly we’re seeing technology companies including in-built accessible software into their products – all Apple products now have in-build screen reader and magnifier software, Microsoft also has in-build accessible software, and the number of free or discretionary cost solutions are constantly growing. These options mean that more individuals are able to access assistive technology without breaking the bank.
What does that mean? Let’s say I was to consider applying for a position with a company, which I’m not right now, I could approach a job interview with all the assistive technology solutions already in place – hence no cost to the company unless they decided to use the more expensive commercial products. Using my existing software and various free apps on my iPhone I’m able to access almost any information I’m likely to need.
Are these free solutions as good? Certainly I find they enable me to do all I need to do, though at times I may need to hunt for the solution. I can’t say I’ve done an exhaustive comparison but certainly I Haven’t found anything I can’t do on my current screen reader that I could on the commercial equivalent.
And yet the perception persists that making reasonable accommodations will be expensive.
I suppose it’s logical – very few people with no lings to the disability world know what solutions are available, and you’re unlikely to be told about the free options if you ask a commercial vendor. So it’s up to us, as visually impaired people, to make other’s aware of what we can access.
I know the focus of my posts is on the issue of barriers to employment that exist for people with visual impairments, rather than all disabilities. This is the area I have direct personal experience in. However, I know the principles hold across the spectrum of other disabilities.
If you’d like more information on anything I’ve said in this post, please feel free to contact me – this is a subject very close to my heart… as is decreasing the barriers to employment so often faced by persons with disabilities.
PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!
“I can’t imagine any visually impaired person would prefer reading books using a computer voice rather than a human voice!”
I’m probably misquoting the words but that was the sense of a comment I heard on one of the assistive technology podcasts I regularly listen to. My immediate response was to disagree vehemently… and then I paused and thought about it for a bit.
You see, I actually do prefer reading using a computerized voice. And I seriously doubt I’m the only blind person who does so. So I hopped onto Facebook and asked the question, tagging all the visually impaired people I’m connected with on that platform.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove me, though anyone who knows me will agree that I have a finely developed sense of curiosity. I also wanted to find out to help me reach more blind and visually impaired people with my own books.
It turns out that most of the people I asked preferred human voice books in the form of audio books or services like Audible.com. When chatting to a friend about this startling (to us both) fact he offered a few reasons why this might be so, but his rationale was fairly complicated and this is only meant to be an article, not a thesis!
When I first lost my sight I used to listen to audio books and found that my opinion of the book often depended on the quality of the reader and, in some cases, how well I felt the reader’s voice fitted the genre of the book. Of course, that was back in the days when my only source of books was the library service, Tape Aids for the Blind where the readers were all volunteers so the quality varied quite a bit. Thankfully there was only one instance that the reader was so bad that he totally killed the book for me! But I truly began to feel like I was juding the books, not by their covers but by their readers.
Then someone introduced me to reading on computer using a screen reader and my life was transformed. I loved the ability to scan any book I wanted and read it. I loved the ability to change the rate and pitch of the voice – if you try that with a human voice it often lands up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium which really isn’t pleasant. But most of all I loved that I was free to interpret the words in whatever way I chose to rather than having my impressions of the book determined by the reader– to me that was the closest I’d found to reading as I’d done when I still had sight.
Ultimately I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to read when you’re visually impaired. The important thing is that we have the ability to read in whatever format we each prefer, whether it’s using human voice, computer voice, or braille.
But my investigations got me thinking that I really ought to do an audio version of my book, A Different Way of Seeing… Anyone interested in reading for me?