Complications from diabetes left Crystal Gunn blind, changing her life forever.

Even the simple pleasure of enjoying a book was lost to her – at least until a new campaign put a smartphone in her hand and gave her the chance to listen to literature for the first time in years.

“It brought excitement and imagination and also a bit of confidence,” she told CTV News.

“Like having a regular book, you can’t put it down.”

In the two months since she’s received her phone, she’s used it to communicate with out-of-town friends and relatives, and to keep track of appointments.

“It helps with being independent,” she said.

Gunn is one of the three million Canadians living with eye disease, and one of the 200,000 or so the Canadian National Institute for the Blind aims to help with its new “Phone it Forward” campaign.

The campaign is targeting Canadians who purchase new smartphones, calling on them to donate their old devices to CNIB rather than selling them, trading them in or sticking them in a drawer.

Donated phones are mailed to a central location where they are wiped clean of their data, then given to Canadians who are blind or have low vision – many of whom might not be able to afford modern devices themselves. It’s estimated that about 55 per cent of blind Canadians own smartphones, compared to 90 per cent of the general population.

“Every one of us across the country … has a device that’s sitting in a drawer somewhere, that’s not being used,” CNIB president John Rafferty said in an interview.

“If we can get just 10 per cent of the smart devices that are being decommissioned, we would be able to get a smart device in the hands of every Canadian who is blind or partially sighted – and we’d be able to provide the training for them to know how to use it.”

Special apps designed to help people with vision problems are installed on the phones before they are turned over.

Mehak Aziz, 14, has been virtually blind for her entire life due to a genetic condition. She uses her donated phone to take pictures of everything from classroom whiteboards to print materials she is unable to read, then zoom in enough that she can make sense of what she’s seeing.

“I think it’s a very good idea for people who have sight loss,” she said.

Not every phone donated to CNIB is accepted for the program. A Canadian firm, Fixit, which specializes in cell phone repair and refurbishment, is donating services to assess and rehabilitate suitable phones.

When a device is approved, its donor is issued a tax receipt for the value of their phone.

Rafferty believes the program is the first of its kind in Canada, with libraries and potentially banks signing up to become drop-off spots for the used phones. He hopes it can serve as a model for other countries.