How many times have you turned on your computer and have got stuck in an update jam with no speech from your screenreader, purely because Windows has taken the decision to yet again grace us with its generosity and gift us with yet another update out of the blue? As exciting as a new update can be, the whole fright of losing speech at any point puts people off from forcing updates, and even worse causes a lot of stress when Windows push the update to you whether you like it or not. Fear no more, now you can have the reasurrance that if you lose speech at startup, or you have any PC problem for that matter, you can access sighted help for free, anytime.
Where it all began
In February 2018 Be my eyes, the smartphone app which allows you to call sighted volunteers for visual help, added a feature called specialised help. This allows you to call either Microsoft disability desk for computer help, or the Be my eyes support team for app support respectively. Be my Eyes and its users hope to add more companies over time, and more can be heard in the first Episode of Potterscast, a brand new podcast, which will launch soon on this website. Up until recently Microsoft were only available during the hours of 4pm till 12am UK time. In August 2018, I was delighted to receive an email from Be my eyes to say that this was no longer the case and that the Disability Answer desk team were now available 24/7. This made me breathe a huge sigh of relief, I pictured all the different situations where I would use the help, anything from the simplest question of how do I view my calendar in Outlook, to something more complex like how do I create a table in Excel. You never know when you might need help, and most people would agree that sometimes we set ourselves high expectations to get as many tasks done, and hope that we don’t need to ask for assistance because that might not be available when we need it. I am not ashamed to admit that I am exactly that type of person, and sometimes I wouldn’t dare go out of my comfort zone, especially with computer software, I have always had a fear of breaking something and being in despair because I might not have anyone to help me troubleshoot my problems. One email, just one email from Be my eyes changed that, and that fear was gone for good.
Before you call
It is important to remember that Microsoft will only support their own products, which include the Office suite and general Windows 10 issues. If you have a problem with another product, such as Dropbox, then Microsoft will not support you. It is also handy to know that when you call the Disability answer desk through Be my eyes you are less likely to be offered support remotely, where the member of staff, with your permission, takes control of your PC to troubleshoot quicker. Instead, you will be asked by the agent on the call to point the rear camera of your phone at the screen and move it until they can see the detail needed to solve your problem. I would therefore warn you that you may wish to have a tripod handy because Microsoft are likely to ask you to press keyboard shortcuts which involve the use of both of your hands; this is difficult to do if you are holding the phone with one hand so the tripod would help to place your smartphone in a position where Microsoft can still see your screen and you are free to use your keyboard.
The call itself
I used the feature in 2 different situations to solve some computer problems. The first time I called with an Outlook 2016 problem. For some reason my inbox view had changed. Therefore, instead of showing me my most recent message first, it was showing me the most important message first. I played with the ribbon, tried to research online, but found nothing of help. I decided to try out specialied help, made my first call, waited less than 1 minute for my call to be answered, and I was through to a member of staff. While I was waiting I placed my phone in my tripod ready, with the rear camera pointing at the screen. When my call was answered I was through to a very friendly agent; I explained my problem, they asked me to move the camera a few times so that they could see the screen, but once done they asked me to press some shortcuts in sequence so that I could change my inbox view. This took less than 5 minutes which for me is impressive. Once my view was changed I checked my inbox again and I was happy. At the end of the call I thanked the agent for their help and was simply asked for my email address for their records. The call was then ended and I was able to continue working.
The second time I called I had another Outlook problem. This time, I wanted to attach a file to send to someone, I followed the usual steps for writing an email and selecting the file I wanted, but I was then presented with a dialogue box which neither NVDA nor Jaws would read. I was already stressed out with being late in sending the file. I called Microsoft again using Be my eyes, asked them if they could describe the screen to me, which they did extremely well. It turned out the file was too large to send, so Microsoft advised me to use a cloud service such as Dropbox or OneDrive. I had never created links to files using either service, despite Dropbox being the service I use daily, and when I asked how to create a link with Dropbox I was unable to receive an answer, which was to be expected, after all, Dropbox is a completely separate service. I was told by the agent that they do not useDropbox so were unable to help with this. I thanked the agent for their help and was again asked for my email address for their records. this call also took less than 5 minutes and met my expectations.
Overall, I think that the introduction of specialised help is a much-appreciated and long-awaited feature for many of us. There is no cost to us as users, everything is free. The agents are extremely helpful and friendly and and also patient, meaning that those who are a little slower with computers can still feel at ease. As mentioned earlier, the calls are answered in a very timely manner.
As always, like most things, there is room for improvement. I wish more companies would sign up to provide help through Be my eyes, in particular banks and telephone providers who could assist with reading correspondence they have sent to us. Apple accessibility is also something which I would like to see for help with Mac and IOS products. Despite this, I am not hesitant to continue using the Microsoft Disability Answer desk through Be my eyes, it gives me a greater sense of independence without the worry of taking up a sighted person’s time.