Penny Forward Transcript: Breaking Barriers with Blind Shell USA.

Are you fed up with paying for expensive cell phones that you don’t even like because all you want is a simple button interface, but still the functionality of a smart phone? Are you someone who would love to be connected, but just can’t afford it? Blind Shell USA is working on breaking these barriers for the blind community. We talked to Diane and Bari about the phone, it’s features, and the new affordable connectivity program Blind Shell Mobile is offering.

 

Select here to listen to the audio podcast and see the show notes…

 

Transcript

Pre-episode Intro

 

Diane: If you’re someone who loves your devices with buttons, the BlindShell Classic 2 is the economical device to have, because it’s all in one. So, this is the best bang for your buck if you are a button person.

 

Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson, …

 

MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …

 

Chris: And Liz is not able to be here today, but we hope she enjoys this episode when she gets to hear the recording. Today, we are going to be interviewing Diane and Bari from BlindShell USA. They are going to be talking about blindshell, particularly from a financial perspective, but also, uh, you know, just from a technology perspective. What it does, and uh, why you might prefer it over another type of smartphone. I saw the BlindShell Classic 2 smartphone at the ACB convention last year, and Diane gave me a great tour of it, and I’m really impressed with it, so I’m really excited to have them on to talk to us about it today. Diane and Bari, thanks for being here.

 

Bari: Thank you so much for having us.

 

Chris: Let’s start out by uh, having us tell our listeners a little about yourselves. Diane, would you like to start?

 

Diane: Sure. My name is Diane Ducharme, and I am senior program manager for BlindShell USA, and I have always worked in a field of blindness and low vision, and just, one thing led to another, and here I am with BlindShell.

 

Chris: Awesome. And Bari?

 

Bari: Yeah. So, uh, once again, thanks for having us. My name is Bari Azman, and I am President of BlindShell USA. I was fortunate to have a career change back in 2014, which brought me, and really introduced me to the sight loss community. My father is a low vision specialist optometrist, and so that is my direct connection to the community and how I got involved. Just a fast track as far as my background, I came from a completely different world, I used to work with the airlines on a global level, and, you know, this opportunity came up for me to get involved with the low vision and blind community. And after I got past the initial stages as far as getting acquainted,  as far as really understanding what’s going on, on a global level when it comes to sight loss, I decided to really go all in, and to devote my life today to working with the blind community. And so, I’ve been involved with a lot of technology, everything from simple, hand-held magnifiers and all the way through, to, you know, top wearable devices, and, here we are today with BlindShell USA, and, we’re gonna talk about communication. What everyone wants to talk about. So, really great to be here, and uh, proud to be working with this incredible community.

 

MOe: Would you like to tell us more about BlindShell the company?

 

Bari: Sure. Absolutely. So, uh, BlindShell comes from Prog, the Czech Republic. The phone, the BlindShell Classic 2, is our flagship phone today. It is the successor to the original Blindshell Classic, and when the Blindshell classic 2 hit the US market in late 2021, the phone was completely revamped from a hardware standpoint, and also, a little bit from a, a software standpoint as well. So the phone, uh, we call it as a “candy shaped,” as far as the actual physical form factor. It does have a nice large screen. It has physical tactile buttons, and also an actual, physical keypad as well. The phone is menu driven, so there is no tapping, swiping, or anything like that, and users are going to be in a complete accessible environment throughout the entire experience. Now, BlindShell USA represents the North American market for BlindShell. We are a US based, US owned company, and we are here to really, you know, take a great foundation, that was created, and to be able to bring communication to everyone. To give people a choice as far as how they want to be able to communicate. The phone has so much to offer. You can just utilize the talking, as a phone, as far as that feature, you can go ahead and utilize the SMS, text messaging, various streaming features, and we’re gonna talk about applications as well, and then of course, we’re gonna talk about some of the latest and greatest offers. So, it’s really a very diverse phone, and people can grow into it as far as using the features that are available today.

 

Chris: Diane, could you talk a little bit about the technology of the phone, and also about the features that it offers?

 

Diane: Sure. So, as Bari was mentioning,  it is a menu driven phone. There’s no swiping, texting, rotering, anything like that. There’s two bars in the middle. They look like an equals sign. Everything is tactile, everything is spoken. So you would use those navigation bars to go down through your menus, and then hit a tactile “okay” button to get into the application that you would want to get into. So, we can call, and we can text, and there’s multiple ways to do everything. You could either do it the old-fashioned way with the T-9 typing, or you can use the dictation mode as well, to make your phone calls, and your texting, and dictate E-mails. Uh, but there’s also a lot of mainstream apps on the phone, such as Amazon, Alexa, Aira, Be My Eyes, Google Look-out, Spotify, Bard, so you do have your mainstream apps, but then you also have your BlindShell specific apps. Where they’ve taken a podcast player, and simplified it, so that it’s so easy to listen to those podcasts that you want. YouTube is also on here. There’s a step counter. There is, you know, What’s App, and Zoom, and you can have multiple E-mail accounts on the phone. You can go on the internet as well. So there’s just tons of features. You can have the phone be as simplified as you like, or you can download all of these apps right from the phone itself, and then have a more sophisticated phone.

 

MOe: How does the price of the BlindShell compare to other phones, and possibly, what is the price of a BlindShell 2?

 

Bari: The cost of the BlindShell Classic 2 is four hundred and eighty-nine dollars, and when you look at other devices on the market today, we definitely feel that  the BlindShell Classic 2 is a very economical and affordable device for all the features that it offers.

 

Chris: I’m curious to know, we talked a little bit about what it does, and it does a lot. And it’s incredibly cheap compared to a lot of other smartphones. What does it not do? Are there, are there limitations to it?

 

Diane: So, the limitations that it has is that it is a closed platform. So, you can only download the apps that are in the BlindShell app catalog. So, some call that a limitation, some don’t. Because we’re finding with the apps that are available, you can pretty much do everything that you can do on your smartphone. And for those apps that aren’t on here yet, such as like Ride share or something like that, we are working with those companies as we speak. So, it’s not like it’s a … it is a closed platform, but it’s not an infinitely closed platform. We keep working with different companies and new apps keep coming out. So, it’s a closed platform, but it’s an expanding platform as well. What we find is, people will purchase a BlindShell, and still use their smartphone, and they’ll use their smartphone like 90 percent of the time, their BlindShell ten percent, and as they keep exploring what’s on their BlindShell, those numbers will switch. And they’ll be using their BlindShell the majority of the time, and only picking up that smartphone if there’s an app that they can’t access on the BlindShell. The, their preferred choice is the BlindShell simply because of the simplicity of it, and, yes, the tactile buttons.

 

Bari: What I wanted to add to that, is that, yes, we are in a closed eco system, and the number one reason is because of accessibility. We want to make sure that the applications that we offer, that they are truly accessible, because if we were to open it up and allow individuals to go to the Google play store and start downloading, you know, every single app under the sun, they are going to quickly run into an accessibility issue, and we would probably be doing a lot more harm than good, by allowing that to, uh, happen. So, uh, we keep things in this closed eco system, but we still offer a wide array of mainstream applications that are really, you know,  geared towards independent living, being able to provide people with, you know, mainstream applications, uh, which they are accustomed to.

 

Chris: Bari, you mentioned the Google play store. Does that suggest that this is underneath really an Android phone?

 

Bari: Yes. The answer is “yes.” The BlindShell Classic 2 does run on Android under the hood, but individuals will never have access to the Play store, and as far as being able to add any of their own applications.

 

MOe: So earlier this year, we did a podcast that was kind of about the topic of trying to lower your cell phone bill, and those other phone systems that allow you to save a little on that phone bill, and I came across an article that was talking about how you guys have come to a, I guess, new program that you are able to offer the Blindshell on, so why don’t you tell us how this connects to the affordable connectivity?

 

Bari: Absolutely. Thank you so much, MOe, for bringing that up. It’s something that we are beyond excited about to bring to the sight loss community. Free monthly wireless service. This is something that we’ve been working on for a very long time. Figure, over about a year. Now, what we did was, we’ve created BlindShell Mobile, powered by Easy Wireless, that allows us to tap in, and offer individuals from the sight loss community to sign up and qualify for affordable connectivity program cell phone plans. They are one hundred percent free. If you qualify, you’re gonna get unlimited talk, text, data, and a sim card. And so, we offer the service where people can go on our website, they can go through the qualification process in real time, and receive an approval at the end of the submission process. So, it’s something that we’re beyond excited to bring to the community. As I said, we’ve been working on this for a very long time, and since we launched the program, within the past week and a half, uh, we have seen overwhelmingly positive results. I mean things that we never would have dreamed of. You know, as far as, you know, people signing up, organizations coming on board, just all sorts of collaborations that are now happening because we were able to bring this dynamic into the picture. So, you know, it’s a, it is exciting times, because, you know, we’re here to provide, and, and, and really break down barriers. Right? And we want to break down barriers, we want to give people the necessary tools that will allow them to succeed, and by offering free monthly wireless, this is another tool in the toolbox, and another opportunity for us to alleviate a burden for someone who, maybe, can’t afford it. So, the good thing is, is that the free monthly wireless service is open to such a wide demographic of individuals. Just to go through some of the top programs, so if someone is already receiving benefits from Medicaid, or if they’re receiving SSI, or SSDI, Snap,  veterans and survivors pension benefit, I mean the list goes on, then you are automatically eligible for the free monthly wireless service. So what you do is, you go on to our website, you can go to

blindshellusa.com/free

or you can go to BlindShell Mobile, and, that’s b l i n d s h e l l m o b i l e dot com

 

blindshellmobile.com

and you can click “get qualified,” you can enter your E-mail address and your zip code. It will tell you if there is the option to receive the free monthly wireless service in your area. You will then continue on. You will enter your demographic, all of your information, many times, if, again, if you’re already receiving benefits like Medicaid, the national verifier will be able to link up with the Medicaid database, confirm your information, and give you that approval within twenty to thirty seconds. I do also want to point out that in some instances, you may have to upload a screenshot, or a copy of one of the other benefits which I mentioned earlier. But again, the process is very simple, it’s very straight forward, and uh, we are seeing individuals receive their sim cards, getting the approvals  that they expect, and um, it’s making a big impact. So, really, really happy to bring this, and really promote this within the sight loss community.

 

Diane: And, and just to add to that, if you’re not on any of those federal programs, you can still see if you’re eligible based on your income. ‘Cause that’s one of the options you can select. And then you would have to upload like aW2, or, um, a letter of benefits, so it goes by the number of people in your household. So you can, even though you say, “Well, I don’t get any of those, but I’m, you know, still not, you know, bringing in a huge income,” always check to see if you’re eligible. Always, you know, give it a try. Because you may be surprised based on your income.

 

Bari: There is a formula that the government uses, and it goes by if the household income is or at below two hundred percent of the federal poverty guidelines, then you qualify. So, I, just as an example, if someone, or a household is, a single household is making uh, less than twenty-nine thousand, one hundred and sixty dollars, they are going to qualify. So, this program, it caters to over forty-eight million plus households here in the United States. And so I do also want to point out that the program today that we offer is available in forty-seven states. So we can provide free monthly wireless service in forty-seven out of the fifty states. The three states that are not available today are California, Alaska, and Louisiana. We are hopeful that California will come on board, uh, in the very near future, and so, yeah. We have forty-seven states, and, which is, you know, quite a large territory to cover, uh, and so, we know that there are tens of millions of individuals out there who could really benefit from the free monthly wireless  service.

 

Chris: What if somebody doesn’t qualify?

 

Diane: So, if they don’t qualify for that program, then they can go to a carrier of their choice, preferably a carrier that uses T. Mobile towers. Verizon is, is not an option yet, but that’s something that will be coming down the road, and you can use AT&T with some setting changes in the phone, but if you want to be ready to roll right out of the box, go with T. Mobile or anybody that uses their towers. There’s many low cost carriers that use T. Mobile towers. You can use like Boost, or Metro, or Tello, or Mint, and find out the best plan for you.

 

Bari: I just  want to also add on top of that, if you are going to apply and get, uh, the free monthly wireless service, you are also going to be entitled to a fifty-dollar discount off the price of a Blindshell Classic 2. It will bring the cost down to four hundred and thirty-nine dollars for you, and I also want to further mention is that the affordable connectivity program that we offer with the free monthly wireless service, you don’t have to necessarily use a Blindshell classic 2. Of course, we prefer that you do, but if you have a phone that you love, that you do not want to give up, you can use that phone as long as it’s unlocked. You can pop in your new sim card, and you will be good to go. So I do want to point that out.

 

Chris: Is there financing available for people that may not feel like they can pull together the four hundred and thirty dollars?

 

Bari: Yes. So uh, we offer financing through a firm, or through PayPal Pay Waiter on our website. I do want to point out that we as BlindShell USA have no authority as far as who is approved for the payments, as far as, you know, how they’re spread out. That’s something, uh, that is done by those third parties, and when we get the approval, the order will process. Everything will  be based on your payment history, and probably credit as well, and they create the actual payment plan option based on your specific, uh, credit.

 

Chris: Diane, could you walk us through the process of what it’s like to sign up for Blindshell Mobile? Bari talked about applying for the affordable connectivity program, but could you describe in more detail the process that someone would do once they get to the site?

 

Diane: Sure. So, once you get there, the first thing they will ask you for is an E-mail address and your zip code, just to make sure you’re not in one of those three states where it’s not being offered. So then it will take you to the next page, and it’s pretty simple. It’s your name, address, birth date, social security number, checking off if you have any of those benefit qualifications, and then it’s a submit button, and then, within twenty to thirty seconds, it will look up your eligibility, if you’re eligible based on those benefits, it will tell you that, and then um, you will get an E-mail confirming that you are eligible, and then you can wait for your sim card to arrive in the mail. If you are going to choose eligibility based on income or some other benefit that is not listed there, then it will require you to upload a document.

 

Chris: Okay, and also what is the process for getting the phone itself?

 

Bari: Yeah. So, it’s all, again, everything’s available on

blindshellusa.com

when you click on the top, or, if you’re on a desktop computer, the, in the top menu, it says “BlindShell Mobile.” You will click there, you can go through as far as, you know, signing up for the process, or you can start with, by adding the phone to your cart, and checking out. You can then, you know, choose which one you want to do first. If you decide to sign up for the free monthly wireless service, when you receive the confirmation E-mail, you will  receive a link which will take you straight to another page where you can purchase the phone at a discounted price. So, I don’t want you to think that if you sign up, you’ll never be able to get back to it. No, you will have the option to get back when you get that confirmation E-mail. So, it’s very simple, and, um, you know, we try to make things as simple and streamlined as possible.

 

MOe: If you’re using the affordable connectivity for internet, are you able to also get the BlindShell?

 

Bari: Great question. So, if you sign up, you’re entitled to the discounted price. If you already are using the affordable connectivity program to receive internet in the house, you can also take advantage of the discounted price. So, yes, you can, but I do want to stress that you cannot double dip on the service side. So if you’re serving free internet at home with the ACP benefit, you cannot go ahead and also receive free monthly wireless service. So that’s one or the other, but we’re happy to extend a discount if you already have the free internet at home, or if you’re just now signing up for the first time. If a person decides that it’s easier for them, or better for them, to get the service on a Blindshell through the sim card, you can use the Blindshell Classic 2 as a mobile hot spot. So I do want to, you know, point that out, and therefore, you know, we do see a lot of people prefer the mobile on the go, internet on the go, by utilizing this free service that way.

 

Chris: Are there any exciting things coming up in the future for Blindshell that, uh, you would be ready to talk about now?

 

Bari: So, I think that, as far as what we’re talking about right now, we’re very limited. Launching the free monthly wireless service was a very big deal for us, that just recently launched within the past, you know, week and a half. Uh, we do have some big app announcements that are scheduled for the month of June, so I will tell everyone to sit tight and be patient, but I think like Diane mentioned earlier, working with the ride share folks, that’s something that’s down the road, and we see Blindshell as a platform. It’s not just a cell phone. It’s, you know, communication, it’s, you know, everyone wants to be able to communicate. And so we see the Blindshell Classic 2 as this centerpiece that gives people the ability to talk, text, stream, and really, do whatever they want to do as far as communication. So, we’re continuing to build on that, and um, you know, right now, it’s, again, it’s never status quo with us. We’re always working on, you know, developing more and more, and so I would say for, right now, for the, you know, near term, look out for some new applications that will continue to enhance and improve quality of life and um, provide greater independence. That’s what we’re aiming for.

 

MOe: Have we spoken about what apps have come out this year so far for BlindShell?

 

Bari: We have not. I mean I’m sure Diane would love to share that with you.

 

Diane: Yeah. Sure. So, the recent apps that we were able to put on the blindshell are Aira, and we have Zoom, and we have Bard, and Spotify, and Alexa.

 

Bari: So, some big apps, big names there. Bard was the number one requested app from the community. We were really excited to bring that to the Blindshell Classic 2 earlier this year in 2023. Spotify was just recently added. Zoom was just recently added as well. And so there are some great apps that are in the works. If you go on our website, on

Blindshellusa.COM

you can see some of the uh, apps that we feature, but you can also click on, uh, “Browse app library.” There’s a quite extended list as far as applications currently available today for users.

 

Diane: If you’re someone who loves your devices with buttons, going with the theme of this show, the BlindShell Classic 2 is the economical device to have, because it’s all in one. You don’t need to have that separate book reader with the buttons. And you don’t need to have a separate podcast player. And you don’t need to have a, a … you know, a separate device that will read your text, and identify your money. It’s all in here. It’s all in one. So, this is the best bang for your buck if you are a button person.

 

Chris: Wow! I love what you did there. That’s a great point.  So the ACB and NFB conventions are coming in July, and a lot of people like to go there and get their hands on tech that they haven’t had a chance to try out before. Are you going to be at either or both of them, and will people be able to try out the BlindShell Classic 2 there?

 

Bari: So, the answer is, individuals will be able to touch, feel, demo, the BlindShell Classic 2 at both ACB and NFB. Due to scheduling, BlindShell USA will only be this year at NFB, however, we have full representation who will be at ACB, and you can check out AT Guys, who will be at ACB and will have the Blindshell Classic 2 on sight, and readily available.

 

MOe: Is there anything else that we have not asked you yet?

 

Diane: Well, all I can say is that it’s a good thing you asked Bari about upcoming stuff, because I can be a blabbermouth and get myself into trouble. So, …

 

(They laugh together.)

 

Diane: I’m glad that Bari was here to answer that question.

 

(They laugh.)

 

Bari: Yes. No, Diane has, like, the super duper BlindShell Classic 2 phone, with all the upcoming applications on there, and, uh, you know, it’s one of those things that’s like very tightly guarded, it’s like when the President carries around that briefcase, you know, with all the uh, top secret codes for the missiles, that’s Diane’s phone. And so, uh, yeah. There’s some, there’s some, great stuff that’s in the pipe line, real excited to continue to expand on the platform. Uh, one thing we, we didn’t talk about, and I’m happy just to, uh, go in there for a second. We’ll talk about work force communication accommodation program. We have put together a program for employers who are looking to empower their employees with an accessible device for communication. We are working with many large and small corporations throughout the United States that are providing assistive technology, and who want their employees to have an accessible phone, and to be able to communicate how they choose. So, um, again, you can learn more about that as well on

blindshellusa.com

under the work force accommodation program.

 

Dianne: And also, if you’re interested in Blindshell and it’s just not in your budget right now, check out your local rehab agency. Many of them are starting to cover the BlindShell phone. Also, check out your telecommunications accessibility programs. Their equipment distribution programs. Every state has them. Many, many states are now giving out BlindShell 2’s to people who want to get away from the whole flatscreen type of phones. The VA’S. We have many, many, many VA’S across the country that are giving out BlindShell classic 2’s to their veterans. So always check your local agencies before you purchase one.

 

Chris: Wow! This is really great, a lot of really good info, I think people are gonna be really excited to listen to this. How can people get a hold of you if they have more questions before they decide to pull the trigger?

 

Bari: Uh, individuals can visit our website

blindshellusa.com

or they can reach out to us toll free. That’s 833-972-2020, that’s 833-972-2020. Uh, of course, you can

send us an email at [email protected]

blindshell USA dot com, and um, yeah. We’re here, we’re happy to provide the support, answer questions, I do want to point out that Diane hosts a weekly live event on the ACB Community platform. It’s called the BlindShell 101. It meets 1 P.M. every Monday, 1 P.M. Eastern every Monday. And then Diane and I also co-host “Talking Points,” which is a bimonthly live stream, which, meets on, 1 P.M. on Thursday, every other Thursday. So, um, you can get all that information, you can sign up for both those platforms. We love to hear from the community. Whether you’re thinking about getting a phone, you already have a phone, uh, we’re here, to support the community, and, uh, we look forward to connecting with you guys.

 

Chris: Fantastic. Thank you so much. And as always, all of that information will be available in the show notes, if it went by you too fast.  That’s all the time we have for today. The Penny Forward podcast is produced by Chris Peterson and Liz Bottner with assistance from MOe Carpenter. Audio editing and post production is provided by Brynn Lee at

superblink.org

and transcription is provided by Anne Verduin. The music is produced and performed by Andre Louis. Penny Forward is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help blind people navigate the complicated landscape of personal finance through education, mentoring, and mutual support. If you’d like to find out more about us, or join us to get access to our online courses, weekly members only group chats, and more, visit our website at

pennyforward.com

Now, for all of us in the Penny Forward community, I’m Chris Peterson, …

 

MOe: I’m MOe Carpenter, …

 

CHRIS: Thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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