Blind children read books in Braille at the Nanjing Library’s reading room for visually impaired people in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.[Photo/China Daily]
Of the more than 400,000 new titles and re－issued books published in China last year, only around 1,400 were in Braille, the system of writing and printing for blind people, devised by the late blind French national Louis Braille.
The lack of Braille books isn’t the only obstacle stopping visually impaired Chinese from reading more; there are other problems that need to be addressed by the government, libraries and nonprofit organizations. The role of libraries seems to be crucial here.
Unlike most big libraries in Beijing, which are usually packed with readers, China Braille Library, the country’s only library equipped with modern amenities for the blind, seems too spacious and quiet. Often, the librarians themselves are the only readers there.
The library houses almost all of the Braille books in China－around 120,000 copies of more than 3,000 titles. So, clearly the lack of a decent collection isn’t the issue.
“The biggest problem for us is how to attract blind people to the library,” says Ma Wenli, a senior librarian at China Braille Library. “It’s difficult for them to travel long distances.”
Visually impaired people read at a library in Hefei, Anhui province, on World Sight Day in October 2013.[Photo/China Daily]
In 2011, the library moved from the outskirts of Beijing to a more central location near the Temple of Heaven, but as the only specialist library it is still too far for many readers in a big city. In a bid to overcome the problem, the library has teamed up with volunteers, who escort blind people on visits and organize activities for them.
“I don’t know Braille, the volunteers read books to me,” says Yan, who gives only his surname. He comes to attend a book club held at the library twice a month. “To discuss books with others adds more joy to my reading experience.”
Besides book clubs, the library also organizes computer training, lessons on musical instruments and public speaking.
“We’ve been shifting our position from being a passive provider of resources to a proactive educator, motivating the blind to make full use of our facility and services,” says Ma.
Among China’s 17 million blind people, only around 10 percent are estimated to know Braille. For the rest, hearing is their only way to books. However, Chinese publishers don’t have too many audio-enabled books for the blind.
Hongdandan is a Beijing-based nonprofit that “provides cultural products through voice”, and one of their primary services is to record audiobooks. Founded in 2003, the organization started out as a provider of broadcast training to the blind.
“Then visually impaired children asked us to record books that they wanted to read but didn’t have them in Braille versions,” Zheng Xiaojie, founder of Hongdandan, says of the nonprofit’s foray into audiobooks in 2007.
In 2011, she founded a small library of audiobooks called Ximu, meaning “eyes in the heart”, which holds nearly 400 books in Daisy format, the international standard layout for audiobooks recorded for blind readers.
Zheng says that the process of producing quality books requires a lot of time, and given Hongdandan’s nonprofit status, most of the work is done by volunteers, pegging such projects on limited resources.
“Of late, we have been receiving more support from government agencies, and hope to be of better service to blind people,” she adds.
New technologies have enabled the blind to read Braille texts by touching screens, programed by special software, on computers, phones and other gadgets.
Yang Qingfeng, a blind staffer at One Plus One, a disabled persons’ organization, is running a project that converts paper books to e-books on demand by blind people.
“It takes less time than making an audiobook or a Braille book. Just scan the book, convert the image to text and proofread it,” says Yang, who thinks this is one of the most effective tools for blind readers. He has also designed a strict, detailed procedure to avert copyright risks that include first buying paper books and then using a certification process for non-commercial purposes before getting the e-books ready.
China Braille Press is also making e-books for its blind readers, but the process is time-consuming as the library seeks permission from original authors for all books they seek to digitize.
“Though many authors are supportive and give us the permission free of charge, it still takes time and energy,” says Wo Shuping, deputy editor-in-chief of China Braille Press.
The good news is that China signed the Marrakesh Treaty in June, which allows organizations for the blind to produce accessible format copies without a copyright holder’s authorization.
“Although the government signed the treaty, we are still waiting for the National People’s Congress to amend relevant domestic laws,” says Wo. “It might take two to three years.”