New doors open for China’s visually impaired

In May, China officially joined the Marrakesh Treaty, which requires exceptions to copyright law to help the visually impaired access printed works.

Zhang Zhouxiang

Zhang Zhouxiang

China Daily


Visually impaired students read Braille in the library at a special education school in Haikou, Hainan province. [Photo by KANG DENGLIN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

August 17, 2022

BEIJING – Millions have wider range of products to choose from

During a break from her work in the afternoon, Yin Menglan stands up and walks slowly to a window. She cannot see the view outside, but can feel the sun’s warmth.

Yin, 33, who has been a proofreader at the China Braille Press, or CBP, for 11 years, works by touching a Braille pad linked to a computer.

The computer converts regular text on her pad into Braille. Yin reads out the text, while Zhang Chuyi, a sighted person, compares what Yin has read with the text for a book, correcting any errors by using the computer.

Yin is one of more than a dozen proofreaders at CBP who help with publishing books in Braille.

In May, China officially joined the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, or the Marrakesh Treaty in short.

The treaty requires nations that sign up to it to create limitations and exceptions to copyright law to make it easier for those with poor or no sight to access printed works in formats such as Braille.

The treaty is extremely good news for the 17 million visually impaired people in China, who now have a much wider range of products to choose from.

According to China’s copyright law, Braille presses are empowered to produce Braille versions of any published book. They have to credit authors, but do not have to pay them or even inform them that such versions are being produced.

Editors have been making careful choices. Wo Shuping, deputy editor-in-chief of CBP, said: “Every year we select thousands of books from those on the market before finally deciding to publish about 1,000 of them in Braille. These books cover a wide range of topics, including politics, economics, music, health and literature.”

Wo said the books editors choose are often not bestsellers, but those that help people gain a positive attitude toward life and which promote good values. “We hope our books are still worth reading decades after they are published,” Wo added.

CBP’s list of such publications includes National Geography for Children, which introduces China’s landscape and basic geographical features; The White Seal, a short story by British author Rudyard Kipling; and China in Museums: Decoding Fossils, a book for children that explains fossils.

“We have high standards for books aimed at visually impaired people,” Wo said.

Invented by blind Frenchman Louis Braille in 1824, Braille featured the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, each represented by six dots formed in a unique way to enable blind people to read text in French by touch.

The idea was adopted by other European nations which drafted their own versions of Braille, with some minor changes.

In 1952, Huang Nai, the youngest son of China’s revolutionary leader Huang Xing, drafted the country’s first national Braille plan three years after losing his sight.

Combining a number of earlier local plans, Huang Nai’s is based on pinyin, which enables Chinese to be spelled out in the Roman alphabet.

Wang Lili, senior publishing expert at CBP, said, “Chinese Braille is still based on Huang Nai’s version, with a few changes.”

In the CBP printing house, special machines click on the paper to form the Braille dots before the paper is inserted into the books.

Wang said the spaces between the six dots are important features of Braille. “The Braille characters are the same size, and space is an essential feature for blind people to recognize the character. To contain sufficient information, Braille text is extremely large,” she said.

Cheng Donghao, 23, who has been reading and writing in Braille since losing his sight when he was 3, cited Blind People Monthly, a magazine affiliated to CBP.

Cheng, who lives in Beijing but whose hometown is in Henan province, said the pages in this magazine are more than 30 centimeters long, 25 cm wide, and each has about 500 Braille characters.

Braille text is not printed with ink, as blunt needles are used to make the dots. As a result, the pages of a Braille book are thick and they have to be bound together carefully to safeguard the dots. At the China Braille Library, some books printed in the 1960s can still be read today.

When Cheng became blind, his mother decided he should learn Braille after she first taught herself to use it. She recycled paper from a calendar, using a needle to make dots on it to form Chinese characters.

In this way, Cheng learned some 100 Chinese characters as a child. “I am deeply grateful to my mother. She made it possible for me to learn characters, and Braille turned out to be an essential channel for me to get to know the world,” he said.

“Braille is our systemic language and grants us a sense of belonging.”

Wang Yufeng, who is visually impaired, uses an electronic device to read at a rehabilitation center in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. [Photo/Xinhua]

Works of art

Yin, the proofreader, has the same sense of belonging, and takes pride in helping to educate the blind.

She and her colleagues review and proofread each book six times before it goes to press.

After the pages are printed, humans, rather than machines, bind the Braille books. Members of the printing staff place the pages of a book on the floor before inserting them individually into each book.

Wang, the senior publications expert, said, “In some sense, every Braille book is a handmade work of art that is worth collecting.”

Braille publications are much thicker than others-for example, an 80-page magazine is 3 to 4 cm thick.

Special paper is used for Braille books. “Standard printing paper weighs 70 grams per square meter, while that used for Braille books weighs 125 grams. The latter can withstand much more wear and tear,” Wang said.

Song Yanlin, a senior professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Chemistry, said scientists have long been improving the paper used to print Braille books.

The high-quality paper used for such books makes them expensive, but Wang said the government has covered most of the cost, making these publications affordable for most blind people.

For example, Ode To Joy, a magazine published every two months by CBP for blind children, sells for 19 yuan ($2.82)-about 10 to 20 percent of the total cost of producing the publication.

Braille is not the only tool for the visually impaired.

Tao Yong, director of the ophthalmology department at Beijing Chaoyang Hospital affiliated to Capital Medical University, said: “Of the 17 million visually impaired people in China, about two-thirds of them still have some sight, even though it is very poor. The majority of them can read books set in large type.”

Not all blind people can read or write in Braille, because some lose their sight after reaching adulthood.

Tao said: “It is always hard to change the habits of an adult, and the blind are no exception. It is not that easy for them to learn Braille.”

CBP has products for the blind and partially sighted. Wo said it offers a range of publications for them, including Braille books, audio books, large-type publications, barrier-free digital publications and other services. “We aim to serve visually impaired people in ways they like best,” she said.

Luo Wencong, a blind student in his final year at Beijing Union University’s Special Education College, said he uses his phone, rather than Braille, to solve problems.

“Listening to people on my phone, I feel more relaxed. We can become tired after a whole day of touching Braille text, so listening is a good alternative,” Luo said.

“We love doing things that everybody likes, such as resting and listening to novels after a hard day’s work.”

CBP’s website lists books that can be borrowed easily by the visually impaired.

Wo said, “Books not only enrich people’s lives, but also give them access to a better life, along with more opportunities to serve the world with their abilities.

“We hope visual impairment no longer hinders a person’s path forward, and that every visually impaired person enjoys a vibrant life just like sighted people do.”

Yin Menglan works as a proofreader at the China Braille Press. [Photo by JIAO JIE/CHINA DAILY]

Hard work

Wo and her colleagues are working for the rights of the visually impaired.

“Equal access to knowledge is a prerequisite for those with disabilities to pursue their dreams in the same way as others, and that’s what we do. We build a bridge to give them hope,” she said.

Lin Yan, a junior school teacher from Anhui province, stressed the importance of passing on knowledge. “Education is important for people with or without good vision. However, for people with visual disabilities, the path toward knowledge is full of ugly weeds, and we have to work much harder than others to acquire the same knowledge,” she said.

“I was a teacher and I was glad to pass on knowledge to my pupils. Now that I am in darkness, I have a stronger sense of the desire for knowledge, which is why I cherish every effort in passing it on to the visually impaired.”

In his speech at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics review and awards ceremony, President Xi Jinping said, “We will promote all-around development of programs for people with disabilities, and encourage and support them in seeking self-reliance.”

Xi also quoted a visually impaired athlete as saying at the Paralympics, “I cannot see the world, but I want the world to see me.”

Li Qingzhong, chairperson of the China Association of the Blind, endorsed Xi’s remarks and spoke highly of moves made by CBP to link the president’s speech with human rights protection and the promotion of China.

“To acquire knowledge and become educated is an essential part of human rights. For the visually impaired, such rights deserve special protection,” Li told China Daily.

“Barrier-free books in Braille and other measures, make it possible for the visually impaired to pursue their dreams in the same way as others.”

A student reads at the special education school in Haikou. [Photo by YUAN CHEN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

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