All Articles by Will Butler

11 Articles

A Week with Be My Eyes: The First Truly Social Network

On May 11 from 5:00 t0 7:00 p.m., LightHouse will host Be My Eyes and its blind or low vision users for an evening of creative use, feedback and even a bit of friendly competition. The Be My Eyes team will take blind users through the past, present and future of the technology, and share some incredible stories about the iPhone app that connects blind people to a network of sighted volunteers via live video chat. The event is free and intended for blind and low vision users – RSVP on Facebook.

We love our independence. Even if our vegetables are grown and picked by hundreds of hands, our cars designed by teams of closely collaborating engineers, and everything from our electricity to our government benefits kept running by vast networks of individuals — modern day technology and consumption are designed to make us feel self sufficient.

We are thus allowed to hold ourselves ideals of self-determination and rugged individualism that have been passed down over the centuries. As blind people, these values are challenged every day of our lives. When something is poorly designed or downright unusable, we confront a deep conundrum: going it alone or asking for help, and risking the perceived possibility of burdening others.

When Be My Eyes launched nearly two years ago, a new tool was born: a radically different way to ask for help. Be My Eyes introduced blind smartphone users to a whole new type of social support network, one unbounded by geography, bureaucracy, or even practical limitations, that allowed blind users to get sighted assistance via video chat.

Today there are about half a million sighted volunteers with Be My Eyes loaded onto their phones, with more than 30,000 blind users on the other end. These volunteers will do anything from help you adjust the thermostat to spending half an hour helping you pick out an outfit for a high-stakes presentation. But at it’s core, each interaction is random, at-will and obligation free. The free app puts no limit on the number of calls you can make in a day. If you really wanted to, you could call 100 different people and have each of them identify the exact same piece of art – and the service, as always, would be free.

Even though thousands of blind people benefit from this app every week, the platform can handle thousands more. I wonder often if our notion of independent living so engrained, so hard-wired that we have still have trouble asking for help, even when there are really no strings attached.

Be My Eyes is working toward a gold-standard for people helping people. They have hundreds of thousands of hours of free labor, given with good faith, at a moments notice from people all around the world. It’s truly a new tool – like a fishing pole that reels in assistance whenever you want it. But as the old saying goes, you have to “teach a man to fish” before he can really benefit from the tools at hand.

Last month, I challenged myself to re-consider how I use the app. Occasionally I will be somewhere, alone, and realize that I am struggling. We all do this, sighted and blind alike: make things harder for ourselves then they need to be.

For one week, I told myself, any time I needed help I would pull out the app and give it a spin. What came out of it was surprising. Watch the video below to see Be My Eyes in action.

Not only did I use it for things I never thought it could work for – like identifying house numbers as I walked through a neighborhood or even the types of fish on my sushi plate – but I met people who were patient, not overbearing, and curious as to what they could do to be helpful without being obtrusive.

No one asked me personal questions, no one tried to coach me on how to live my life, and above all no one grabbed me by the arm and steered me somewhere I didn’t want to go. When I got what I needed, I could politely say thank you and hang up without fear that being brisk with someone would have repercussions later. It’s all the value of having someone nearby without any of the additional worry of initiating contact, explaining yourself, and ultimately breaking free of their of custody.

Our understanding of “independence” is not truly about total independence, but instead about masking the assembly line of helpers which make up our lives: the tiny little micro-transactions where individuals step in to provide assistance, whether or not we have a disability. For blind people, this is a more obvious reality than for most.

The reason Be My Eyes is so remarkable is because it embraces this reality wholesale: You can get the tiniest bit of help and move on through your life. The safety net is huge, and yet doesn’t loom over you.

Maybe it makes sense, then, that the guys behind Be My Eyes hail from Denmark, where you’re much more likely to hear about a more “social” approach. And if we think of human interaction as give and take, as an exchange of ideas or assistance as a true social interaction – maybe Be My Eyes has created the first truly social network.

Street Photography – By and For the Blind

Tim Tonachella’s voice is unmistakable. I’ve learned its texture, its subtle turns and the meaning behind the sounds. It’s got some gravel in it; it throws stones playfully. Over several phone calls with the Michigan photographer this past year, though, when we talked about his life, his approach and his raw, explorative photography – the main thing ringing in my ears was that he didn’t want the first bullet point to be that he’s blind.

We talked a lot about how describing things affects how they’re perceived, and my intention was not to congratulate him for being the first legally blind guy to pick up a camera (he’s not, in case you’re wondering).

I reached out to ask if we could use his work in an exercise to help explore the  process and practicalities of describing artwork for a blind audience. He was kind enough to say yes, and today we’re able to present never-before-seen photos along with a conversational, round-table audio description from a few folks who have spent time at the intersection of blindness and visual art: UC Berkeley professor Georgina Kleege, SFMOMA curator Peter Samis and San Francisco photographer Troy Holden.

Before we dive into the audio, a bit more about Tim Tonachella. He came to photography later in life, and when he first picked up the camera, everyone seemed to scratch their heads. He had gone to the Michigan School for the Blind with the likes of musician Stevie Wonder and our own Enchanted Hills Camp Construction Manager George Wurtzel, and though he still wryly jokes that he “never really liked blind people” much, his legal blindness was a constant throughout his life. When he picked up the camera in his fifties though, he suddenly had access to new worlds. The telephoto lens wasn’t, as many might assume, a confounding tool only for use by sighted folks, but instead opened up environments and enhanced his ability to see much in the way it would for those who clock in at 20/20 on the eye chart.

On January 27, Tonachella’s show “Growing Old On the Street” opens at the Downriver Council for the Arts in Wyandotte, MI. The collection is full of portraits, candid and posed, that reflect  the toughness of Tonachella’s human fabric. The show, which also showcases the interpretative works of dozens of other artists, reflects Tonachella’s core sensibilities: generous, honest and a bit rough around the edges. Tonachella’s process is a labor of love, and often involves sitting patiently to hear the stories and take in the realities of the quietly persevering souls that cities have left behind.

Listen to the whole discussion in the playlist above or click each image to be directed to its associated Soundcloud link. Find out more about Tim Tonachella’s upcoming shows at the end of this post.

Photograph 1: A man sits on a concrete ledge and leans his weight into wrought iron fence. His wears a bucket hat and the smoke from the cigarette curled in his right hand catches in the light. A bottle of hard liquor is perched next to him on the ground, slightly concealed by an angular concrete block. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 1: A man sits on a concrete ledge and leans his weight into wrought iron fence. His wears a bucket hat and the smoke from the cigarette curled in his right hand catches in the light. A bottle of hard liquor is perched next to him on the ground, slightly concealed by an angular concrete block. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 2: An old man clasps a cigarette in his wizened mouth, below his salt and pepper mustache. He wears a bucket hat and a worn polo. His eyes are closed. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 2: An old man clasps a cigarette in his wizened mouth, below his salt and pepper mustache. He wears a bucket hat and a worn polo. His eyes are closed. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 3: An old, closed-down, shuttered candy store. A clutter of old boxes and furniture appear through the gaping window. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 3: An old, closed-down, shuttered candy store. A clutter of old boxes and furniture appear through the gaping window. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 4: A man in a knit cap, denim jacket and hoodie looks at the camera with a steady gaze. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photograph 4: A man in a knit cap, denim jacket and hoodie looks at the camera with a steady gaze. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photo 5: The same man breaks into a toothy grin. The shot is farther away and reveals the piano he sits at, his gloved finger pressing into ivory keys. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.
Photo 5: The same man breaks into a toothy grin. The shot is farther away and reveals the piano he sits at, his gloved finger pressing into ivory keys. Click the image to hear the corresponding audio file.

Tonachella’s exhibition at The Downriver Council for the Arts runs from January 27 through February 10, 2017. Downriver Council for the Arts, 81 Chestnut Wyandotte, MI 48192

He’ll also be featured in two other shows in Michigan coming up in July and October this year.

July 2017: Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI 48187 (exact dates to be announced)

October 2017: Tim’s solo show will Exhibit during National Visual Impairment month. Y Arts, The YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, 1401 Broadway St, Detroit, MI 48226 (exact dates to be announced)

Hear a New Blindness Story in This Week’s Pop-Up Magazine – Win Tickets

Win two tickets to Pop-Up Magazine at the Paramount Theater in Oakland this Thursday, November 10: email “Pop Up” to

When we started LightHouse Interpoint this spring, we had a vision of a literary magazine featuring stories by the world’s best blind writers. So far we’ve published work by world travelers, parents, professors, journalists, and regular blind people who have something interesting to say.

The LightHouse has always imagined Interpoint being bigger than just online essays, though, and this week we’re proud to announce that we have an Interpoint story, written and edited by blind people, going on tour with Pop-Up Magazine. The piece premiered at the Los Angeles Ace Hotel Theater on Thursday night to a massive audience response, and will be performed on all the stops of Pop-Up Magazine’s November tour, which means you can see it live in San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Boston, and Brooklyn.

Below find the full tour schedule and links to buy tickets. More about Pop-Up Magazine:

Called “a sensation” by the New York Times and referred to by the SF Chronicle as “Fast-paced, loose, often funny, and wholly unpredictable,” Pop Up Magazine is a signature San Francisco event which takes the live storytelling of radio programs like This American Life to the next level: in the form of a live, unrecorded show. With events that have sold out venues such as Davies Symphony Hall and the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Pop-Up presents the highest calibre of storytelling with all the excitement of a live concert. This month, our writers will be sharing the stage with the likes of Ira Glass, Gillian Jacobs, Joshua Bearman and Mallory Ortberg, among many others.

A huge thank you to Pop-Up Magazine for collaborating so closely with the LightHouse to develop yet another unique, untold story in the Interpoint series. See you at the theater!

Pop-Up Magazine, Dates and Tickets:

11/3 – THE THEATRE AT ACE HOTEL – Los Angeles


11/9 – NOURSE THEATER – San Francisco


11/10 – PARAMOUNT THEATRE – Oakland


11/12 – HARRIS THEATER – Chicago


11/15 – WILBUR THEATRE – Boston


11/17 – KINGS THEATRE – Brooklyn


Photos: 2016 Was the Best Superfest Film Festival Yet

Now that we’ve recovered, the LightHouse wants to thank everyone involved in this year’s Superfest Film Festival and share some great photos from the event. For the full photo album with descriptions, head over to our Facebook page.

Thanks to everyone who came out both days, thanks to Pixar for being there to so graciously accept their award, thanks to the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University for being the best co-producers ever. Thanks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life for hosting us, and thank you to all the incredible filmmakers who joined us for the weekend. Can’t wait to do it even bigger and better next year!

Photo below: Pixar Academy Award®-winner Jonas Rivera and Paul Cichocki smile from the front row at Superfest on Saturday, shortly before receiving the Superfest Producer’s Award for the advancement of disability and film.

Jonas and Paul watch from audience

#BeSeenSF: Why We’re Taking Over the Streets on Friday

When you step into the street, whether it’s to represent a cause, celebrate an achievement or just to get where you’re going, you make a statement: I want to be seen.

In the blindness community, we’re used to being looked at. What’s different, though, is choosing to be seen; claiming agency over the spectacle, and making it your own.

On Friday, June 10, the entire LightHouse community is going to depart from the patterns of our daily routines and take over the streets, marching from City Hall, down Van Ness Avenue, onto Market Street, and to a ribbon-cutting and party at our new headquarters, We are in center of San Francisco to make a ruckus, to make a statement, to challenge the idea of business as usual, and encourage our community to think differently about those with different types of vision. Contrary to what you may think, we are blind and proud of it, and we want to be seen in celebration.

This is a parade for people with all types of vision; and we’d love nothing more than to have people who have never met us before filling out our ranks. So tomorrow, Friday June 10 at 11 a.m. sharp, meet us on the Polk Street steps of city hall. It will be a memorable day to set up the blindness community for the next 114 years in downtown San Francisco.

RSVP to join our June 10th Parade and Open House:

Watch Pixar, ProTools and More Talk Accessibility with LightHouse for the Blind

May 19th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and we couldn’t be happier to see this event grow and become greater each year. This week Apple and Google have both wholeheartedly embraced #GAAD, and many smaller apps have even taken the opportunity to release updates specifically ensuring compatibility with VoiceOver.

We decided that it’d be the perfect day to let loose a full video of our recent SXSW panel, “Mainstreaming Accessibility.” The event brought together five brilliant, pioneering individuals from Pixar, ProTools, Be My Eyes and VocalID to have a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion about what good design can achieve. Moderated by the LightHouse’s media and communications officer, Will Butler, the discussion gives an exciting look into the future of movies, music, and technology for not only the blind but for those with speech disorders and other disabilities.

Sit back and enjoy, and have a happy #GAAD!

If your organization would love to increase the accessibility of your products and services, a good place to start is at the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. You can contact Will Butler at 415.694.7309 or email to begin a conversation.

LightHouse's SXSW 2016 flyer with date, time, location, and logos of companies


Blind and Proud: March With Us on June 10th

Grand Opening Logo

Whether you’re a student, supporter, or just curious to see hundreds of blind people shutting down the streets, this is an occasion not to be missed: Meet us on the east steps (Polk Street side) of City Hall at 11 a.m. on June 10th and join in this historic San Francisco event.

Our June 10th Grand Opening Celebration will be a civic event, starting with VIP speakers on the steps of City Hall, followed by a “Blind & Proud” Parade with fanfare down Van Ness and Market Street to our new headquarters at 1155 Market. There we will have a ribbon cutting and an open house reception, showcasing our new facilities with interactive activities and demonstrations.

Please March With Us!

Our Grand Opening events will be a great San Francisco occasion with hundreds in attendance and thousands more to witness as the LightHouse expands our mission to give people who are blind or have low vision the tools and community they need to live their lives as they desire.

We would love for you to join us in our march from City Hall to the new LightHouse. Our “Blind & Proud” Parade will begin after our welcome on the steps of City Hall, and proceed down Van Ness and Market Streets, right in the heart of San Francisco. We would love our allies and supporters to bring a group and help us to create some fanfare as we make our way to our new home. We have a big marching band to lead the way and help tell our neighbors, loud and clear, that the blindness community has cause to celebrate.

To RSVP, please contact Andrea Ogarrio at or 415.694.7365. For more information about the days festivities, or to secure a spot in the parade for your group or organization, please email Grand Opening coordinator Megara Vogl at

Take our Survey to Help Us Build a Better LightHouse

Two LightHouse studios smile as they work on a pottery project

LightHouse is conducting a survey and we need your help. This short satisfaction survey will help us gauge our successes, and design programming around our students’ needs and desires. Additionally, the survey is important to current and future funders.

If you participated in programming over the last six months, or wanted to participate but weren’t able to, please fill out our quick online survey by clicking here.

Go to the NFB National Convention with LightHouse YES Academy

The LightHouse believes that attending consumer conventions of the blind can be an empowering tool. Since 2011 we’ve taken students and staff to a number of consumer conventions to maximize and intensify learning in a fun and adventuresome way.

With great excitement, The LightHouse Youth Program is pleased to announce its first Youth Employment Series (YES) Academy.

Academy Dates: Wednesday, June 22 to Wednesday, July 6, 2016

During this two-week training academy students aged 16 to 24 will gain valuable knowledge and life experiences that will help them become more independent, confident and successful.

During the first week of this intensive program, students will stay at the brand new, state-of-the-art LightHouse headquarters in San Francisco where they will take part in a series of day-long workshops focused on acquiring knowledge about college, employment, blindness skills and self-advocacy.

LightHouse YES Academy Goes to NFB National Convention
During the second week, new skills will be put to the test when the entire academy hits the road and travels across the country to attend the National Federation of the Blind annual National Convention in Orlando, Florida, one of the largest gatherings of blind and low vision individuals and professionals in the world.

YES Academy Week Highlights
•Learn about accommodations available to college students and those entering the workforce.
•Acquire access technology skills which can be applied to real world situations, and test how effective these technologies might be for yourself.
•Acquire and use blindness skills that will enrich your life and help you achieve your goals, be more confident and learn how to advocate for your needs.
•Learn how to smoothly transition into college from high school or from college to a career.
•Develop effective cover letters and resumes.
•Practice networking, participate in mock interviews and understand how to make a strong and positive first impression.
•Learn how to develop, enhance and utilize your network and your relationships with peers and mentors.

NFB National Convention Week Highlights
•Attend the largest gathering of individuals who are blind or have low vision in the United States.
•Gain advice, wisdom and network with intelligent, charismatic and fun blind mentors and leaders.
•Share and discuss issues, ideas and perspectives of importance to the blind community with peers and mentors.
•Practice skills and techniques learned during our monthly YES Youth Employment Series and other trainings in a blind-friendly environment with thousands of low vision and blind mentors who can help you master your new skills.
•Learn about the latest and greatest technologies for the blind and low vision community at one of the largest gatherings of venders of low vision and blind technologies in the world.

Students aged 16 to 24 who are referred to the YES Academy by their Department of Rehabilitation counselor are encouraged to apply. The LightHouse YES Academy includes dormitory lodging, hotel room expenses, transportation to and from Orlando, food, registration fees and many day-to-day expenses during the academy. Transportation to and from San Francisco is not included. Payment must be secured by June 15.

The first step in the registration process is to complete the online portion of the application. Click here to go to the application form.

LightHouse Youth Services Coordinator Jamey Gump will contact you shortly after your application has been submitted to complete the application process.

If you would like more information regarding the LightHouse YES Academy, including costs, please contact Jamey Gump at 415.694.7372 or