New app makes communication easier for vulnerable groups


A Bruges non-profit has launched a mobile app that helps individuals with communication problems to ask those around them for assistance when they need it

Any questions?

Can carrying a simple blue card make the difference between being able to get to work on time or running errands by yourself? For 660,000 people in Flanders, it can.

According to Geert Vandewalle, co-ordinator at the non-profit organisation BlueAssist, this is the number of people in Flanders who have difficulties communicating, whether due to an intellectual disability, a language barrier or speech or comprehension problems.

For these people, something as ordinary as taking a bus or navigating a city’s streets can be extremely challenging. Aimed at increasing autonomy and social inclusion, BlueAssist recently rolled out a campaign to help people with communication problems to ask for support from strangers, be it on the street, in a train station or on a tram.

“It’s a very simple idea,” says Vandewalle. “BlueAssist is an icon with a message attached to it.” At its simplest, this takes the form of a blue paper card with a few lines of white space where any question can be written in by hand – by the user or by someone else. For example: “I’m going to the library. Can you tell me which bus stop I need to get off at?”

The organisation has also launched a BlueAssist mobile application that allows people to type their questions into their phones and move between multiple questions with a swipe of the screen. The application also has a call function, which allows the person assisting the BlueAssist user to easily reach a family member, social worker or coach.

“For all of society”

BlueAssist works in two ways. From the user’s side, it helps someone with difficulties speaking or being understood to show others that they have a question. On the other side, it’s a handy icon to help someone in the public recognise that a person has a question.

If someone approaches you with a BlueAssist card, we want you to know exactly what it is

- Geert Vandewalle

So the BlueAssist awareness campaign is not just directed towards BlueAssist users but towards citizens in general, explains Vandewalle. It is his goal to make the BlueAssist icon recognised by all of society and, by doing so, make people with communication problems feel more confident in doing things by themselves.

“Everyone knows that a sign with a wheelchair on it means that something is physically accessible for people with limited mobility,” he says. “In the same way, if someone approaches you with a BlueAssist card, we want you know exactly what it is.”

“Would you help someone who approached you with BlueAssist?” Vandewalle asked me. Of course, I answered. “Well, then you’re a BlueAssistant.”

People can register to be BlueAssistants, but they are not volunteers, Vandewalle emphasises. They’re everyone. “You help because you’re there at the moment – in the station, the town hall, the shop. So you never step out of your role as citizen; you’re already on the tram, and someone just asks a question.”

Registering as a BlueAssistant does not impart any obligations. The aim is not for BlueAssist users to specifically search for registered members to approach with their questions. Rather, registering online as a BlueAssistant is more symbolic. “BlueAssist users can see the large number of people willing to sign on to help and feel confident in approaching anyone with their questions.”

Getting the word out

Funded largely by the Flemish government’s Flanders’ Care agency, BlueAssist’s current focus is on making public transport more accessible. To this end, the non-profit has teamed up with transport authorities to promote the service.

Last month, Proximus also signed on, pledging to promote BlueAssist in the general public and to raise awareness among its own personnel. Part of this includes training its staff in skills that will help them respond to BlueAssist questions, such as listening with respect and patience, in addition to asking clear follow-up questions and confirming that the answer was understood.

What was originally a few small islands of users has now spread all over Flanders as the BlueAssist icon has become more and more known on the streets. Today 13,000 people are registered on BlueAssist.

The service has even gone international. “BlueAssist programmes are being started in the UK and in The Hague, and our goal, eventually, is to create an international movement,” says Vandewalle. “Whenever it’s picked up in new places, its use must be adapted to the specific situation of that country or region,” he explains.

For Vandewalle, this means observing what difficulties people with communication problems experience in that country and which services they use the most. Then choosing partner organisations to target awareness-raising efforts towards the public as well as personnel using and working in these areas.

Photo courtesy BlueAssist

A Bruges non-profit has launched a mobile app that helps individuals with communication problems to ask those around them for assistance when they need it.

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