SINGAPORE: A couple of days ago, Ms Cholatip Yimyong had a bit of a problem during her short trip in Singapore.
The 37-year-old Thai, who was staying by herself in a hotel, needed to adjust the room’s temperature and have a drink of water.
The catch: It was already late at night and she’s blind.
But instead of calling room service for assistance, she posted photos of the aircon controller and the water bottle she was holding on the Facebook group she belonged to.
“Then people went to explain that it was complimentary water and not something else, and told me the temperature of the room if I wanted to adjust it.”
Ms Yimyong, who became blind at the age of 14, is the co-founder of the Help Us Read, a two-year-old online community that has been helping to transcribe or describe everything from labels to lecture notes for blind people in Thailand.
It currently has around 11,000 members, of which approximately a thousand are visually impaired. The rest are Thai volunteers from Thailand and places such as Germany and Australia, who are all ready to chip in.
“All blind people want to be independent, so instead of going around (physically) asking people for help, it’s like having a friend who’s always there. I can go anywhere and I know there’s someone to explain whatever it is,” she said.
GROWING FACEBOOK GROUPS IN ASIA-PACIFIC
Ms Yimyong and her co-founder Mr Natwut Amornvivat were in Singapore as part of a select group of regional community leaders who met up on Wed (Nov 8) with Facebook executives, led by the tech giant’s chief operating officer Ms Sheryl Sandberg.
The closed-door meeting held at Marina Bay Sands featured the administrators of Facebook groups who do social work, including Singapore’s Aidha, a support network for foreign domestic workers and lower-income women; India’s Ovenderful Mom Bakers, who bake goods for children in orphanages; and Indonesia’s Komunitas Bisa Menulis, which connect 180,000 aspiring authors with mentors.
During the meeting, Ms Sandberg cited the Asia Pacific region as the fastest growing region for people who use Facebook Groups. More than 56 per cent of users – or around 420 million people – use Groups.
She added that the tech giant is making a “major investment” in the Groups function and people should expect more features and functionalities in the future.
“What social media and Facebook really aims to change is to give every single person a voice. It’s never the technology, it’s the way people use it,” she said.
DESCRIBING A PHOTOGRAPH
And Help Us Read is certainly using it in a very unique way.
The group was a logical extension of a similar project in 2013 – an app called Read For The Blind, which allowed people to listen to audio books.
It was initiated by Mr Amornvivat, 44, who runs an online payment company and volunteers at the Thai Blind Foundation, where Ms Yimyong works.
“I noticed there were very few volunteers, so I said why not have an app where we can record audio books at home,” he recalled.
The app instantly became viral and currently has 200,000 users in Thailand.
But the two later noticed a proverbial blindspot – what about for the day-to-day or more immediate issues?
Mr Amornvivat recalled how he got an urgent late night call from Ms Yimyong in 2015, asking him to help describe a photograph that a school had sent to her via WhatsApp.
While smartphones and social media apps such as Facebook already have a text-to-speech function to translate text into audio, there was nothing to translate photographs and PDFs into text, let alone describe something abstract like images.
When Ms Yimyong pointed out the popularity of Facebook among blind people, the two hit upon the idea of creating a Facebook Group where volunteers could come in and help whenever a blind person posted something.
ONE MINUTE OF DOING GOOD
To date, Help Us Read deals with everything from finding out the expiration dates of products and figuring out medicine labels to transcribing school materials.
“Sometimes, they come back from the hospital and don’t know which medicine is which or schools distribute study schedules in PDF and the blind can’t understand it,” said Mr Amornvivat.
Ms Yimyong once posted a photo of a Mother’s Day card she received from her two children, who were too shy to describe what they had made. Volunteers came to describe it for her.
But there’s also a bigger potential in what Help Us Read does. The group once transcribed 15 years’ worth of law exam papers for future blind students to use. Some 8,500 volunteers worked to get it done in less than a month.
For the most part, volunteers’ responses come in real-time, and after getting alerts, blind people can then use a text-to-speech function to access these.
“The volunteers are all standing by 24/7. It’s a competition to be the quickest one to help, like a game,” quipped Amornvivat.
He added that the enthusiasm of Help Us Read’s volunteers was one thing they did not foresee when the first started the group.
“We thought it was just going to help the blind, but many volunteers have told us it has also helped them to do something good, which was unexpected. Like when they’re awake in the middle of the night and someone posts, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s some help needed – it’s my one minute of doing good.’”