From Any Corner Of The World, Help A Blind Person Cook A Recipe Or Switch On The Lights

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A few years ago, Godwin from Accra, Ghana was affected by retina problems which eventually left him visually-impaired. An engineer by profession, he struggled a lot to cope up with life during the initial days. Soon, assistive technology came to his rescue. However, no human being enjoys the constant company of Artificial Intelligence, be it in his professional or personal life.

Be My Eyes

Godwin too felt disconnected from the human touch at times. That is why, when he learnt about Be My Eyes app in 2015, he was immediately interested. It enabled him to connect with sighted volunteers from any part of the world through video calls. They assist him in a wide range of tasks – be it checking if his lights are on, to check his blood pressure reading or to connect his WiFi. In fact, Godwin recently took help through the app for some demonstration during a lecture at a university, which left the audience amazed.

“Applications like Be My Eyes are excellent – very easy to use. And I tell you, the people are so wonderful, so willing to assist,” says Godwin, now a regular user of Be My Eyes.

The blind furniture-maker who founded Be My Eyes

“Imagine you are blind. You’re cooking in your kitchen, listening to the recipe through a screen reader. The next step instructs you to add coconut milk. You open your cupboard and feel two cans. Now, you wonder, which one of it is coconut milk? While hesitation and inhibition cross your mind, you still have no choice but to grab your cane and walk over to your neighbour’s house, maybe for the second time that day,” narrates Hans Jorgen Wilberg, the visually-impaired founder of Be My Eyes, illustrating a very common situation in a blind person’s everyday life.

Hans Jorgen Wiberg, founder of Be My Eyes

This is where Be Me Eyes can be the saviour. While most of the innovations for visually-impaired people continue to centre around technology, Wilberg harnessed a basic technology and added the human touch to it, making it one of the most favoured assistive apps around the world. Launched in January 2015, Be My Eyes has 19,63,530 registered volunteers who aid 1,17,251 blind users across over 150 countries and in more than 180 native languages.

Wilberg, who is a craftsman from Denmark, was suggested by a friend to use video calling feature to approach his acquaintances for any help. The idea struck him, and soon he got connected with a tech team who stepped forward to build his dream app and pool volunteers from everywhere. The rest is history.

Sarah’s morning sorting ritual

Every morning, Sarah from Dublin, Ireland faced a lot of struggle to choose among her toiletries. Be it the hair conditioner or the moisturiser or the foundation, sorting her collection of cosmetics was a regular hassle until volunteers from different parts of the world came to her rescue. Sarah is blind from birth. One morning, through a radio podcast, she came to know about Be My Eyes. Now every day, she meets a new volunteer from any part of the world, who gladly helps her out in the daily sorting routine. It’s simple. Sarah shows her bottles to the volunteer who easily informs her of what it is.

“I never realised how important it would be to just have a pair of eyes when you need them. You don’t have to ask the same people all the time,” shares Sarah, who finds it exciting to bond with strangers who make her mornings easier and happier.

All over the globe

The beneficiaries of the app are spread across the globe. Take the example of 55-year-old construction worker Jose Ranola from the Philippines, whose critical medicines are carefully identified by volunteers through a simple video call, reports The Guardian. Australian mother Brenda Smith manages her chores smoothly with Be My Eyes, be it distinguishing the white and the brown bread or checking expiry dates on stored items.

Be My Eyes
Connie, a blind transcriber, gets a lot of help through Be My Eyes

In 2018, Be My Eyes partnered with Microsoft to launch the Specialised Help feature, which allows blind and partially-blind individuals to connect with official representatives from companies or access customer support.

A visually challenged person using BeMyEyes app

Efforts For Good take

In developed countries, Braille has almost been completely replaced by screen readers, audiobooks and other AI-based technology which had made lives a lot easier for the visually-impaired. However, the situation is not so hopeful in developing countries, including India, where such technology is expensive and inaccessible in remote interiors. However, the internet is something widely available everywhere nowadays. Be My Eyes app requires nothing but a basic internet connection and a working phone camera. Thus, it has the potential to be the perfect companion for blind people in villages, whose daily struggles know no bounds, often accentuated by apathy and discrimination from insensitive people. Efforts For Good hopes more Indians learn to use Be My Eyes and get all the necessary assistance in no time. Willing do-gooders can also sign up as volunteers to be the eyes for your fellow citizens whose eyesight is compromised.

Also Read: Move Over ‘Siri’ & ‘Alexa’, This Futuristic Glove Will Help Millions To Communicate With Anyone

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
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