We've published many articles in AccessWorld over the past few years that address the emergence and advancement of a new category of services called crowd assistance apps. These apps allow a user to connect to a remote volunteer or professional to accomplish tasks from the most basic, such as locating a desired type of coffee, to the rather advanced, such as deciphering a complex spreadsheet on a computer. It is this latter category that has become easier over the past year with the introduction of a variety of free offers from both Be My Eyes and AIRA. For this article, I tested a variety of these free offers to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and to determine which may be the best fit for a variety of situations.
If you are new to these services, you can check out part 1 and part 2 of Janet Ingber's series on AIRA from 2017, or Bill Holton's introduction to Be My Eyes from 2016. While some of the details may have changed since these articles were written, the basic premise and service remains.
It's worth noting that all of the services described in this article, including those provided by AIRA, are completely free, regardless of whether you have a paid account. Simply download the desired app and sign up for a free account to get started. Be My Eyes and AIRA are available for free for both iOS and Android devices.
Specialized Help With Be My Eyes
Be My Eyes includes a feature called Specialized Help, which currently offers customized support for a small amount of companies. As of this writing, this extends to the disability support teams for Google and Microsoft, as well as Lloyds Bank in the United Kingdom. The idea is that these specialized help services will cover situations where volunteers may not be suitable, such as obtaining software technical support or reading sensitive information on a bank statement.
Google's Disability Support Team is currently available weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm Pacific time and aims to help with support for just about any Google product.
I made a test call to inquire about a bug with Google's Backup and Sync app, which syncs files between a Google Drive and a Windows computer. When attempting to access this program from the Windows System Tray, the items in the menu do not speak.
My test call was answered within a few seconds and I was able to efficiently talk the technician through the call. They had a Windows machine in front of them and proceeded to duplicate the issue I had described and offered to file a bug report on my behalf. The entire call only took a few minutes. An email regarding the filed bug report was sent to me shortly.
Google's support is intended to help troubleshoot technical issues, guide users through software features, and navigate potentially inaccessible screens. For tasks that include reading information, such as determining the temperature on a Nest Learning Thermostat, a volunteer may be more suitable.
Microsoft was the first company to offer support on Be My Eyes, and has since become the first Specialized Help service on the platform to offer 24/7 help. Microsoft support extends to help with their software products including Windows and Office. I especially think their support can be useful to help configure a new computer, or in situations where Windows needs to be restored from a crash, or when Narrator or other speech options may not be available.
For my Microsoft call, I found a simple bug in the Windows Calculator app, which I wanted to verify and report. Essentially, there is a mode in the calculator that lets you find the time between two dates. When selecting a month using the Previous and Next keys, focus will revert to the current month when pressing Tab. Unfortunately, it took me several times to connect to an available agent using both an Android phone and an iPhone. My first call was disconnected after about a minute due to poor network connectivity. Several additional calls either went unanswered or ended with an error message. It's possible that Microsoft was short-staffed during the evening of my tests, and your experience may likely vary.
Once I connected with an agent, I explained the problem I was having with the Windows Calculator. It took them several minutes and at least three different explanations to understand the problem. To their credit, they were patient and willing to take the time to understand the situation. They offered an alternative to select a date that I was able to use successfully. But I also wanted to see if they could file a bug for me to help get the issue resolved. After several minutes, I was told this was not possible and was promised an email with information on how to report the bug. So far, that email has not arrived.
To be fair, this could very well be an isolated incident, and your experience will depend on the type of question you have and the person on the other end of the call. A simple question, such as reading text on the Login screen, would be much easier to manage.
AIRA Free Offers
AIRA has expanded their selection of free access offers, which allow users to gain access to agents without paying for minutes. In addition to being able to use AIRA in a growing number of airports and stores, AIRA offers free access for small business tasks (sponsored by Intuit) and specialized software help for software products including JAWS and QuickBooks. To access these offers, select the "Apply a Free Offer" option after opening the AIRA app.
Vispero, Including JAWS
If you use one of Vispero's screen access products including JAWS, ZoomText, and MAGic, AIRA can help in cases where your technology is not working as expected. Some examples that are given include reading form controls when JAWS does not properly interpret them, solving issues with screen reader authorizations, and cases where the magnification in Zoomtext is not working.
For my test call, I found a PDF file that was not reading when I used the Arrow keys. JAWS just spoke "blank". The agent offered to connect to my computer using TeamViewer, a free Windows app that allows a remote agent to temporarily control a customer's machine. Once they connected, they were able to read the document that was on the screen without issue. Obviously, if I was calling because I could not hear speech output or read my braille display, then other means would likely be necessary to complete the task.
One major difference between AIRA and Be My Eyes relates to who answers the call. For Google and Microsoft on Be My Eyes, representatives from the respective company took the call. For AIRA, their professional agents still answer the calls for specialized help requests. AIRA has talked about offering agents trained for dedicated tasks in the future, which may be of benefit here.
This fact may need to be observed when calling for help on a specialized product such as QuickBooks or QuickBooks Online. I wanted to get assistance with an invoice template that was not reading properly with NVDA. Again, the agent connected to my machine using TeamViewer, and we were able to complete the task. The success of this call was aided by my knowledge of QuickBooks Online and a Google search I made prior to the call, which described how to fill edit an invoice template. AIRA agents are excellent at interpreting the screen and knowledgeable about computers but may not know minute details about the ins and outs of advanced software such as QuickBooks. While agents would be willing to help you research the solution if needed, a little bit of preparation can go a long way toward making a call like this a success.
AIRA also includes support for a popular foreign language elearning platform called Vista Higher Learning, used by many high school and college students. This is an excellent way to provide an additional level of accessibility for a complex product. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that no company use a service like AIRA or Be My Eyes as an excuse to forego built-in accessibility for their software.
AIRA agents are also now available 24/7, so these and future offers can be accessed any time day or night. If you have a paid plan, using one of these offers will not count against your allotment of minutes.
The expanding array of specialized help options available from AIRA and Be My Eyes are enabling a wide variety of computer and other tasks to be completed with ease. While the preference should always be for true built-in accessibility, it's nice to know there is a fallback in place for those times where there are gaps in the technology we use. Expanding this service to other industries and providing specially trained agents and helpers will go a long way to further increase the viability and utility of these services going forward. I encourage everyone to install and set up both of these apps, so that free help is only a double tap away, practically whenever you need it.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- Game-Changing Technology: A Review of the Horizon Smart Glasses from Aira by Deborah Kendrick
- New Accessibility Support Options Courtesy of Google, Microsoft, and Be My Eyes by Bill Holton
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