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  • Chris McMillan

Blind people in China struggle with more than just their disability


11th July 2013

Feeling their way

Chinese Braille

Blind people in China struggle with more than just their disability

AS MILLIONS of Chinese high-school students took their university-entrance exams on June 7th, the education ministry received a freedom-of-information request. It asked how many blind students had sat the exam, known as the ‘gaokao’, since 2008. In that year a legal change required papers to be offered to the sightless in ‘Braille’ or with aural help through a computer. Why, the request’s eight blind submitters wanted to know, was the law being ignored?

For blind people in China, as elsewhere, Braille is the key to literacy. But the peculiarities of the language make it even more difficult for Chinese people to use. Chinese has tens of thousands of characters. Their monosyllabic pronunciations can be rendered in Roman letters using a system called pinyin. Chinese in ‘Braille’ is based on‘pinyin, not characters. But the language is replete with homophones. The four tones of Mandarin Chinese, as well as context, help to eliminate ambiguities. But not always. (In conversation Chinese occasionally use a finger to trace a character on the palm of the hand to indicate which character is meant.) Blind students are at a further disadvantage if they are used to pronouncing characters in their local dialect, rather than in the Mandarin pronunciation rendered by ‘pinyin’.

Han Ping, a specialist in blind education at Beijing Union University, says the government needs to do more. It should start, she says, by making sure that blind students are able to sit the gaokao. “There should be no problem, technically, with translating a test paper into Braille,” she says. But universities and local officials lack motivation to help.

In 2002 Ren Zhenghao, then a student in Shanghai, was able to take the gaokao only after submitting a plea to the city government. He and two classmates became the first students in China to sit the exam in Braille. Mr Ren is now a teacher. Since then only 60 blind students have entered the city’s three blind-friendly universities. The education ministry has told the group asking for more statistics to approach local governments instead. Navigating bureaucracy is arduous for all Chinese.

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