Veronica With Four Eyes

Tips For Be My Eyes Volunteers From A User With Low Vision

As a person with low vision, I’ve used Be My Eyes and similar visual interpreting applications many times over the years for various tasks, including reading labels, identifying objects, and getting information about my surroundings. My experience with Be My Eyes volunteers has been generally positive, though some of the volunteers haven’t been very familiar with best practices on how to be a human guide or a visual interpreter for someone with vision loss. Here are my favorite tips for Be My Eyes volunteers, from a user with low vision who uses a blindness cane.

Registering for Be My Eyes and answering calls

Volunteers register for Be My Eyes via the Android or iOS application, and provide an email address as well as their primary language- they can set additional languages in the Settings menu. While the Be My Eyes app is available 24/7 for blind/low vision users, volunteers will only receive calls between 8 am and 9 pm. Be My Eyes calls feature one-way video and two-way audio, so the volunteer can see information through the user’s device camera- both the user and the volunteer remain anonymous during the call. Volunteers do not need to have the Be My Eyes app open to receive calls, though I’ve heard from some volunteers that it can take weeks to months before they receive their first call.

When answering a Be My Eyes call, the volunteer has a full screen view of the blind/low vision user’s video feed, similar to a video call. Volunteers can provide verbal support and ask the user to reposition the camera if needed, and at the end of the call the user rates the volunteer with a thumbs up/thumbs down. The majority of Be My Eyes calls that I have initiated for myself last five minutes or less, though I’ve known people who have completed longer tasks using the app as well.

Related links

Should I ask if some0ne has low vision?

I had someone send me a message referencing an earlier version of this post where they asked me what the term “low vision” means, and if they needed to ask if someone had low vision or if they were blind before helping.

To answer the first question, low vision is vision loss that is not corrected by glasses, contacts, surgery, or similar. Not everyone who has low vision is legally blind, though the term “legally blind” may be used by some people living with low vision. Other popular synonyms include partially sighted, visually impaired, or vision impaired, though I know many people with some usable vision who will use the term “blind” to describe their vision loss. Vision loss is a spectrum, not a binary, and there are many people with low vision/some usable vision who use blindness canes or guide dogs.

Be My Eyes volunteers should not ask questions about how much vision a person has or what eye condition they have, though some users may disclose this information on their own- I will sometimes tell a volunteer that I have low vision or some usable vision if it is relevant to the task. If no information is provided by the user, assume they are blind or have no usable vision, and provide all relevant visual information for the task they are asking for- more on this in the next section.

Related links

Determining relevant visual information

In this context, relevant visual information refers to helpful details that can help a blind or low vision user make a decision or get information about their surroundings.

Example 1- College dining hall

If I ask a volunteer to help me navigate the dining hall, relevant visual information would include:

  • Food labels
  • The location of the dish/serving utensils
  • Whether it looks good or not- I wouldn’t want to eat something that looks like it’s stale or not safe to eat!

Other information that could be helpful:

  • Where I can find an empty place to sit
  • Whether a food station is open or closed, or if a food tray is empty
  • Potential obstacles such as a wet floor sign
  • Any additional signs that are visible, i.e change in hours

Some examples of visual information that would not be helpful in this situation include:

  • A description of what an ingredient looks like- I have a mental model of what a strawberry looks like, but would appreciate knowing where the strawberries are located or if they look like they aren’t safe to eat
  • Commentary on a person’s food choices, unless they have disclosed an allergy and are at risk of eating something that contains the allergen (or that could have potential cross contact).

Example 2- Choosing what to wear

If I ask a volunteer to help me identify clothing or choose something to wear, relevant visual information would include:

  • The color/pattern of the clothing item, with shade names if relevant (lime green, burgundy, etc)
  • A basic description of its style, i.e a short-sleeve dress, ballet flats, jeans, etc
  • Where it is located, if the item is still in storage

Other information that could be helpful:

  • The price tag, if the person is in a store
  • Clothing care instructions, if the tag is visible
  • If the item has any major visual flaws, i.e large stain, water spill, etc

Some examples of visual information that would not be helpful include:

  • Over describing what a color looks like- even with no usable vision, people have a general idea of what the color red looks like. Shade names are more helpful
  • Telling a person where their closet/dresser/furniture is located in reference to where they are standing

Example 3- Putting together a shoe rack

If I ask a volunteer to help me put together a shoe rack or another task that involves following written directions, relevant visual information would include:

  • Describing where parts are located in relation to where I am sitting
  • Labels on bags/parts
  • Text in the instruction manual and descriptions of images, when relevant

Other information that could be helpful:

  • Descriptions of what different parts look like and how many there are
  • Colors of parts, if items are color-coded or color is relevant to the finished product
  • If there is enough space to assemble the item, or if the person should find a different location

Some examples of visual information that would not be helpful include:

  • Guessing what is in a picture/text- it’s okay to ask the user to position the camera differently so that something is more readable

Related links

Repeat the user’s request before answering

I’ve had a few calls with Be My Eyes volunteers where they had trouble understanding what I was saying, and it led to confusion with them providing assistance- in one instance a few years ago, I had asked them to help me locate ibuprofen in a drawer, and the volunteer told me that no, my drawer wasn’t broken, and ended the call.

A better way to handle this interaction would have been having the person repeat the request back to me. In this case, the person could have asked “Do you need help figuring out if your drawer is broken?” This would give me the opportunity as a user to provide more details and repeat my request if needed- in this case, I would have said “No, I need help finding ibuprofen in a drawer. I think it’s in a blue bottle.”

Related links

Avoid using general location words/phrases

General location terms such as over here, right there, this way, that way, and similar don’t provide enough information when I am trying to navigate somewhere or find the location of something. Examples of better terms to use instead include:

  • Left, right, straight ahead, behind, above, below, etc.
  • Estimated or precise distance, such as “the car is ten feet away on the left” or “we’ll turn left in about ten seconds”
  • Faces of a clock can also be a helpful tool, i.e “the store is at 3 o’clock” or “the bag of chips is at 9 o’clock”
  • Locations of landmarks for the surrounding area- for example, passing a statue/wall art, street names (if visible), or furniture when navigating an indoor space

Related links

Read text verbatim- do not paraphrase

When reading text content with Be My Eyes, read text exactly how it is written, do not paraphrase or skip over words/information. If a volunteer is not sure what they are reading, ask the user to adjust the camera and do not skip over words/numbers. This is especially important when reading recipes or information on labels.

Related links

More tips for Be My Eyes volunteers

  • Helping people is awesome, but please refrain from taking screenshots or screen recordings during calls and sharing them with others/posting them on social media. There could be personally identifiable information visible in the image or in its metadata
  • If a volunteer cannot assist with a task, they should tell the user they are unable to help and tell them to make another call within the app- don’t just end the call abruptly. Users can place as many Be My Eyes calls as they want at no charge
  • While visual interpreters should remain objective whenever possible, there are some situations where users may ask Be My Eyes volunteers for their opinion on something, such as if an outfit looks good or when choosing between brands at a grocery store

Tips For Be My Eyes Volunteers From A User With Low Vision. My favorite tips for Be My Eyes volunteers who want to help blind and low vision users get information about their surroundings, from a user with low vision who uses a blindness cane