Feature: Reading accessibility opens world to people with visual impairments in Yunnan

(Xinhua) 11:22, May 17, 2024

KUNMING, May 17 (Xinhua) -- A group of 10 students from the Kunming school for visually impaired and nonspeaking people in southwest China's Yunnan Province walked onto the stage of a national reading event to perform for their audience late last month. And they received warm applause from the audience.

Their show, titled "There is Light in Reading," opened as they guided one another onto the stage by each resting their arms on the shoulders of the performer in front. They then helped one another into their chairs and took the time to find the raised dots on their braille scripts to ensure they were holding them the right way up.

The students, eight of whom are blind and two of whom have low vision, got into their groove as soon as the music started, taking turns to recount their reading preferences and singing to the tune of an electric organ played by another blind student, drawing applause from the audience.

"Reading is our dream. Although we can't see, we are hungry for knowledge and excited for the future," they recited in chorus. "Barrier-free reading allows us to realize our aspirations and dreams, and leads us toward a sea of stars," they continued, using a term that refers to infinite possibilities.

The students were performing at the third National Conference on Reading, which was held in late April in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. The show spotlighted the province's efforts to build a barrier-free reading environment for people with visual impairments.

Among the performers was 16-year-old He Yishan, who said that she loves reading braille books at school and listening to sci-fi books like Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin's "The Three-Body Problem" on her audiobook player and on Ximalaya, an online audio-sharing platform in China. She also plays the piano, sings and participates in other artistic activities.

While she remembers looking through picture books when she was in kindergarten, a congenital eye disease led to the gradual deterioration of her eyesight and she soon took to other means of reading, such as asking her family to read books aloud to her. The first book she ever listened to was "Three Days to See," which was read to her by her grandmother.

"I begged my grandmother to read it for me while she was enjoying the sun on the balcony. She read it sentence by sentence and at a very slow pace," she recalled, saying that her reading was often put on hold when her grandmother was busy.

Gradually, things began to take a turn for the better. When she was in first grade, she began learning braille, a tactile reading and writing system that consists of raised dots organized in cells. Chinese pinyin, letters, numerals and punctuation marks can be conveyed through different arrangements of these raised dots.

Braille and other tools to aid her reading experience opened up a brand new world for He, and she has since read hundreds of books. "When I read a book, I follow the plot and think about what I would do if I were the protagonist, and what choices I would make."

She said that in the future, she wants to be a sci-fi writer and author a book about time and space, sharing her whimsical fantasies and emotions with her readers.

Xiao Shengnan, the Kunming school's principal, said the school has been making efforts to build a barrier-free reading environment for its students.

With an inventory of more than 7,000 braille books, the school has built reading areas in dormitories, classrooms and corridors, allowing students to pick out books whenever and wherever they want, Xiao said.

He also noted that the school has been exploring technical support systems to improve its students' reading experience. "We convert physical documents, such as textbooks, articles and books on traditional Chinese culture, into digital files so that the students can read on their mobile phones," he said, adding that the school provides audiobook players and handheld vision-aid devices.

The school also facilitates a student-run program called "The Little Reader," which has been held every school day since early March. Whenever a student reads a good article and has feelings or insights they want to share with their classmates, they can do so through the campus radio station, Xiao said.

Li Chun, who is in charge of cultural services for people with visual impairments at the Yunnan Provincial Library, said the library has launched digital reading promotion and training services to break down barriers and promote unrestricted reading, including classes teaching people with visual impairments to use computers and smartphones.

Li said that the provincial library has also helped train staff at county-level public libraries and cooperated with local disabled persons' federations to carry out digital reading training for visually impaired people at such venues.

China has been strengthening its efforts to facilitate improved conditions for people with disabilities. China was one of the first signatories to the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, with the treaty coming into force in China in May 2022.

The treaty aims to eliminate copyright-related obstacles for print-disabled people in obtaining works and involves a series of measures tailored to provide increased ease for people with visual impairments in accessing specially adapted books.

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Zhong Wenxing)


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