To change this and to help the blind benefit from the online community created through tech, Stephanie Cowper along with Italian co-founder Giacomo Parmeggiani developed their app, BeSpecular.
Thanks to various technological innovations it’s never been easier to get to your next destination, find a cleaning service, or even get a meal delivered to your door.
What is not talked about enough, however, is how the convenience and ease afforded by tech is largely out of reach to the majority of the disabled community, in particular, the blind.
The app allows the blind to live more independent lives by enabling them to “see” through the help of sighted volunteers.
The idea for the app was initially sparked by a class project during their studies at Stanford University in the US. They made the decision to develop it further and they would later go on to launch it at the American Council of the Blind’s annual conference in Minneapolis, in July this year.
Cowper says launching at the conference was the obvious choice because they could align the app with it’s target market from the onset.
The inner workings
BeSpecular uses the crowdsourcing model to connect its thousands of blind users with sighted volunteers from around the world.
Typically users will reach out to volunteers for assistance with anything from reading the text on the back of a household product, identifying colours or even help with measuring ingredients.
“A blind user can take a photo of an object for example a letter they received in the mail, ask a question via a voice note or text message and send it out to our volunteers. Within seconds, the blind user will begin to receive replies,” says Cowper.
With almost 10 000 users in 50 countries including South Africa, Namibia, Canada, the US and Italy, Cowper credits social media for helping them to expand their reach globally.
“Social media has been tremendously helpful. My co-founder and I are both digital natives and have learnt to take advantage of the global reach sites like Facebook and Twitter afford you if used to their full potential. Word of mouth has also been a very strong suit,” says Cowper.
“We wanted to combine our passion for helping the community, with our technological know-how”
The service is currently available for free to the users but they hope to monetize the service is to offer it to corporates.
While only 1% of the people living with disability have jobs in the world, says Cowper, there is a need to make it easier for those in the corporate space to integrate into the workplace.
“BeSpecular for Business Software as a Service (SaaS) will enable corporates to offer a community of sighted volunteers within their company to assist fellow employees who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind,” says Cowper.
“Moreover, BeSpecular for Business SaaS will serve as a strong way for companies to begin onboarding employees who have a disability and integrating them into the workplace by simultaneously educating able-bodied staff,” she adds.
A social mission
For the co-founders the app allows the opportunity to combine their tech knowledge with a decidedly social mission.
“We wanted to combine our passion for helping the community, with our technological know-how. After an in depth analysis of the various markets, we felt that the disability space, equalling 1 billion people has largely been left untouched. It was an area where we could use our tech skills to have the largest impact, and that we would begin with the largest group of people with disabilities, those who are visually impaired – which totals 258 million people worldwide, and over 1 million people in SA,” says Cowper.
She also adds that the app has received positive feedback from both sighted volunteers and blind users – something Cowper says has been incredibly fulfilling.
“I love waking up in the morning to find emails about how happy a mother in London was to help a lady who’s blind read the user directions on her new facial cleanser,” says Cowper.
”We love hearing about how easy our blind users find the app to help them get around everyday tasks that might have been as issue because there wasn’t a sighted person around,” she adds.
Cowper was recently awarded, along with other women, the Techpreneur of the Year Award by Forbes Africa Woman as well as the Innovator Recognition Award at the MTN Women in ICT Awards.