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Hidden in Plain Sight: China’s Visually Impaired Still Struggle to be Seen

The world of Chinese

21st December 2021

Hidden in Plain Sight: China’s Visually Impaired Still Struggle to be Seen

by Yang Tingting (杨婷婷)

A lack of braille signage and braille education continue to present barriers for China’s visually impaired

Having lost his sight at the age of 2 after botched operations for progressive glaucoma, Zhang Weijun remembers the curiosity he felt the first time he encountered braille on a bus stop in his hometown of Wuhan at age 11, the same year the city first installed it in public areas.

But the boy’s excitement quickly turned to disappointment when he traced the raised bumps on the sign, only to find several meaningless numbers, without any additional information such as the stop name and direction the bus was heading.

“I think the relevant officials just did it for show,” Zhang, now 26, says. “They probably thought, ‘just having braille is enough, it doesn’t matter what it says.’” A graduate student studying English translation in Beijing, Zhang prefers using audio navigation apps on his mobile phone to get around, rather than the limited number of public braille signs that are both hard to find and unhelpful to use.

Physical barriers, employment discrimination, and lack of education opportunities are struggles already familiar for the estimated 17 million people in China living with visual impairments. Yet the infrastructure meant to improve their mobility and access to public facilities, such as tactile writing (braille) and tactile pavements, can actually hinder rather than help the vulnerable due to poor implementation and designs that ignore their needs.

Though China has national regulations requiring braille signage and voice broadcasts to be available in public areas like bus stops, implementation has been a mixed bag. According to the Beijing Radio and TV station, the city’s Xicheng district added braille to 16 bus stop signs in 2015, serving around 6,000 people with visual impairments in the district. However, two years later, journalists found many were poorly maintained, with tactile arrows indicating the direction of the bus worn off.


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