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    Seeing for the Sightless

    On a mobile app that connects the whole world, volunteers lend their eyes to the visually impaired, who in return give their ears to offer soothing comfort.
    Feb 06, 2023#disability

    The first thing Luo Wencong does after he wakes up a little after six in the morning is to weigh himself. Last summer, he attended a training camp in Qingdao, a coastal city in China’s eastern Shandong province, to prepare for the men’s 90 kg judo competition in the provincial 11th Paralympic Games. He needed to lose a few kilos to qualify for the contest.

    Luo, 26, suffers from congenital cataracts and is pursuing a degree in acupuncture and massage therapy at a college in Beijing. He needs help on the scales as there is no voice assistant function at the training center. On a mobile app called Be My Eyes (BME), he sends out a video call. Pointing his phone camera at the scales, he asks, “Hello, can you read the number for me, please?” A volunteer on the other end tells him, “91 kg.” Luo says thanks and hangs up. Usually, these exchanges only last a few seconds.

    Being tech savvy, Luo wrote a program back in high school to help the visually impaired memorize English vocabulary, something he himself struggled with. The app would randomly pick a word from a list he composed and he would spell it out after hearing the word. BME, developed by Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a visually impaired man from Denmark, drew Luo’s attention as soon as the Android version was available in China in 2017. Currently, there are 445,000 visually impaired users from all over the world and more than six million volunteers on BME.

    In the past few years, Luo has asked volunteers for all sorts of small favors, from reading the expiry dates on snacks and the numbers on his bank cards to telling him where his cursor is on the computer screen when his screen reader is acting up. He has also joined an accessibility services team and helped with the localization and maintenance of a desktop screen reader.

    When it comes to asking for help, he actually feels more comfortable with strangers. He doesn’t want to burden the people he knows.“You can’t tell if people really don’t mind helping, or if they are just being polite,” he says. The app makes it much more straightforward — everyone is free to decline the call, and it gets forwarded to the next person.

    He even set the app language to English. Though his English isn’t all that good, it is a more practical choice for him. Being a night owl, he worries about bothering people in the same time zone if he just keeps calling Chinese speakers.

    Seeking help from strangers

    Lin Zhaozhan also prefers asking strangers for assistance. Aged 41, he graduated from a school for the blind in 2001 and makes a living as a masseur. Life is simple in his view: After finishing his 10-hour workday, he smokes a cigarette, takes a shower, and goes to bed. He also has a second occupation mixing sound for audiobooks.

    Two years ago, he began making short videos to document his everyday life. He doesn’t think of himself as being all that different from sighted people. When it comes to his disability, his philosophy is to neither make a big deal of it, nor shy away from it.

    He began using BME in March last year. Some of his peers have discouraged him from recommending the app on short video platforms out of fear that it would be inundated with rude users who might abuse the system. Lin understands their concerns. He used to use an app where one could send a photo and ask a volunteer to describe it. Some visually impaired people saw this app as a way to pass time, sending photos of their massage tables or even pornographic content.

    He has experience with similar Chinese apps as well. Developers usually would set up group chats, where volunteers and visually impaired people can provide input. Lin says he can get nosy sometimes. Whenever someone is disrespectful or asks too much of volunteers, he’d give them a stern warning. One time, someone in the group took issue with what he called the “laconic” tone of a volunteer, to which Lin replied, “You come on this app to have someone solve your problems for you. So long as they do that, who cares if the voice is to your liking?”

    Many of the visually impaired people Lin has come into contact with had a severely sheltered upbringing. Though they attended school, their social circles were exclusively made up of people like themselves. “The bubble they live in shelters them from real life,” he says.

    As a result, many of them become socially awkward and find it difficult to properly express themselves. Lin explains that instead of asking plainly for help to buy a tube of toothpaste, they may say, “Is toothpaste expensive at the moment?” or “I have to squeeze really hard. If I don’t get some more soon, how will I brush my teeth?”

    In fact, awkwardness can go both ways.

    Confiding to strangers

    Ning Meng graduated two years ago and currently works in advertising in Beijing. She became a volunteer for BME back in 2019, but nobody had called her. When she switched to a new phone, the first thing she did was to reinstall the app. She had long hoped to get a call to help someone, to the point she thought the app might be broken.

    She waited until November 2021 to get her first call. She was in a work meeting, but still accepted it without delay. While she was still fumbling for words, the guy on the other end went straight in. He pointed the camera down a road and asked, “Can you help me look out for traffic?”

    Ning “walked” with him for a little over ten minutes. The camera was often off to the side as it’s hard to communicate about angle adjustments. When she could no longer see the road clearly, she’d try to come up with an exact angle and distance by which he needed to move the phone, as she worried that vagueness would only make things worse. “He knew where he was going — he just needed help to reach the intersection,” she thought. “Perhaps he wanted a companion for the road.”

    Ning chose to set Cantonese, her mother tongue, as the default app language. Last year, she accepted a video call from someone in Canada who spoke Cantonese. He asked her for help with an email written in English. They bonded over their Cantonese roots. The man said he was originally from Hong Kong and had immigrated to Canada over 20 years ago, and worked as a cashier ever since. However, over time, his vision had deteriorated along with his diabetes to the point that he now needs machine assistance at work.

    Ning also confided her own issues to him. She wants to study abroad, but is not sure if it’s worth leaving everything behind at home for that. She finds life in Beijing stressful. “The money is not even close to supporting what I want to do,” she told him. But the man cheered her up, saying, “It’s already amazing enough that you’re trying as hard as you can in a strange and faraway city.”

    Their call lasted for almost an hour.

    Ning didn’t venture to ask exactly how his vision deteriorated, fearing that it would be inappropriate. She felt like sharing menial details of their own lives was fine, but probing the other person would be crossing a line. “Because we didn’t actually know each other, the app was kind of a safe space,” she says.

    In May last year, Meng Ke, a teenage volunteer preparing for her final year of high school, received her first call for assistance on the app. The person seeking help wanted her to read out the numbers on four bank cards. When the call came in, she was busy preparing for an exam, so it was a welcome distraction. However, her internet connection dropped in the middle of the call. The app does not provide contact details, so she had no way of calling back.

    She shared on social media her disappointment at not being able to follow through. In July, the volunteer who took the call after her found her post, after recognizing the blurred screenshot of the bank cards that Meng posted. The volunteer suffers from social anxiety in real life, but in this virtual space, she’s willing to forge ties with complete strangers.

    Cherishing the moment

    Dongdong, who was born in the ’90s, is completely blind and works in customer service at a company specializing in products for the visually impaired. He began seeking help from volunteers on apps like BME about seven years ago.

    He recalls that he just wanted to try the app out. He picked up a book nearby and asked for the title on the phone. The entire exchange took less than a minute. When he thanked the volunteers, he could sense their happiness and satisfaction. “Simple and sincere. I cherish these moments in life,” he says.

    He is not shy about asking for help. “You can’t take help for granted, but I figure that they chose to help,” he says. “So long as you express your needs quickly and succinctly, there’s nothing to be awkward about.”

    Reported by Tong Xiaoyu, Zhou Zihao, and Liu Yilin.

    (Ning Meng, Meng Ke, and Dongdong are pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in Beijing Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: RayFoto/VCG)