A few months ago, I attended an event for members of my community with vision impairments, with a diverse range of ages and vision levels, and listened to them talk about issues they face in their day-to-day lives. One of the common things I heard about was how difficult it can be to receive technical support for computers when assistive technology is involved. I started thinking about ways to solve this issue, and apparently, Microsoft Accessibility was reading my mind, as they announced a partnership with Be My Eyes for the Disability Answer Desk. Read on to learn more about this awesome partnership and how people with vision impairments can get help with their Windows/Microsoft technology.
About Be My Eyes
Be My Eyes is a free Android and iOS app that gives people with vision impairments a live sighted volunteer at the press of a button, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Communication is done through video chat and there is no limit on the amount of times that someone can call. While it's important to remember that the service is provided by volunteers, it's still a very helpful service for people with vision impairments, especially those who live alone. Download it for iOS on the App Store here and for Android on the Google Play Store here.
About Microsoft Accessibility
Microsoft Accessibility is a division of Microsoft that focuses on not only making Microsoft products accessible, but also creating new apps and features that can be used by people with various disabilities. One example of an app they have created for people with vision impairments is Seeing AI, which uses artificial intelligence to identify items and read text- read my full review of Seeing AI here. I have also had the opportunity to be featured by Microsoft Accessibility for their Inclusion in Action video series (read more about my Microsoft feature here) and have gotten to meet several members of the Microsoft Accessibility team at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. They are an awesome group of people that understand the needs of the visually impaired community very well, and I highly recommend following them along on Twitter- read about other vision impairment accounts to follow on Twitter here.
A technology help desk for the visually impaired
Traditional technical support hotline representatives are not trained in accessibility settings or in the use of assistive technology. As I mentioned, I heard from many people with vision impairments about how frustrating it can be to solve technology problems over the phone or with someone who does not understand common assistive technology tools like screen readers, magnification aids, and similar. Many of these people were proficient with technology, but sometimes you just need a sighted person to take a look at something (by the way, using the word "look" isn't offensive for the vision impaired- read more about word choice here). As a result, Microsoft integrated the Disability Answer Desk, which helps people with issues related to technology, into the Be My Eyes app. Instead of using Be My Eyes volunteers, the app connects users with Microsoft Disability Answer Desk specialists through the specialized help section of the app.
Disability Answer Desk hours
Like Be My Eyes, this service is free, but the service is only available Monday-Friday from 8:30 am - 5 pm (pacific standard time). From what I can tell, these hours are different depending on what country the app is accessed from, but I can't find any information about other hours for different countries- this post will be updated if I receive additional information.
Can I access the help desk in other ways?
While I highly recommend using the Be My Eyes app to contact the Disability Answer Desk for issues related to vision impairment accessibility, the Disability Answer Desk is available for people with other disabilities as well in different formats, which can benefit people with vision impairments that do not have a smartphone. These formats include an online chat, phone number, and videophone. Contact information can be found on the Disability Answer Desk website here.
My experience using the Disability Answer Desk
A couple of days ago, my desktop computer started behaving very strangely, and I was having trouble figuring out why (read more about why I brought a desktop computer to college here). Thinking I was missing something, I decided to call the Disability Answer Desk, who helped me read a screen that was displaying small text and we were able to solve the problem quickly. While I consider myself to be highly proficient at technology, users with limited technology proficiency will be able to use the service with ease, as long as they know how to point their phone/tablet camera at an object.
Example uses of the Disability Answer Desk
Here are some common queries that can be answered by the Disability Help Desk:
- Installing Microsoft software
- Configuring Windows accessibility settings
- Troubleshooting issues
- Learning how to use technology like Immersive Reader- more on Immersive Reader here.
- And many more...
I am really excited about this partnership with Microsoft and Be My Eyes, and feel confident recommending it to people with vision impairments who need assistance with technology. I hope that over time, the specialized help section of Be My Eyes continues to grow, as this is a great way for companies to reach a growing audience of users with vision impairments (read more about this growing audience in my post for World Sight Day 2017 here). After all, as I said in my Microsoft video, technology does not just make things easier for people with disabilities, it makes things possible.