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Ambitious Vision for Keeping in Touch
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China is the country with not only the largest population, but also the largest number of disabled people nearly 83 million, or about the entire population of Germany.

Of that number, more than 12 million cannot physically see the country's development with their own eyes. They are China's visually impaired.

"The lives of its disabled people cast a spotlight on the flip side of China's economic miracle," said Stephen Hallett, who is visually handicapped himself.

Up to 90 percent of all visually impaired people live in rural areas. Rough estimates suggest that almost 80 percent of these people have very poor or no access to media channels, Hallett said.

"I am eager to learn, but I cannot learn as freely as before I became blind," said Jin Ling, 23, of Tianjin. "I miss the information around me."

Jin is currently part of a project that is training her to become a radio producer.

The project, In Touch for China, was launched on October 15 in Beijing by a British charity, the BBC World Service Trust, and is funded by the British Big Lottery Fund.

The 19-month project will train six people at its centre in Beijing and 30 others from different provinces to work from their own homes as freelance correspondents for the programme. All the trainees are blind or have partial sight.

The idea is to provide information for the disabled, especially the visually impaired, based on need, through professional media production training. The result will be a weekly radio programme produced by the visually impaired producers involved in the project and broadcast on not only Chinese radio stations, but also the Internet.

The idea came from the BBC's weekly 15-minute radio show "In Touch," which has been running for more than 40 years in the UK. 

But the In Touch for China training programme has a more ambitious vision, said Hallett, who is World Service Trust's director for China.

"We are trying to establish something that can sustain itself and last longer than the intended two years that the project is running," Hallett said. "The long-term goal is the most important aspect of this project."

That goal is to end the limited vocational possibilities for the blind in China.

"Finding jobs other than being a masseur is still very hard for blind people in China," Jin said.

That's why the training that In Touch for China provides "is not only confined to broadcasting, but will also include computing, general life skills and capacity building," Hallett said.

Besides providing programmes to Chinese radio stations, the project also broadcasts via the Internet, which has become a major information source for young people with disabilities, including young blind people.

Working together

In Touch for China's main beneficiary is One Plus One, a Beijing-based organization founded in March by two IT professionals with physical disabilities.

"Our projects seek to improve the quality of disabled people's lives, change their attitudes to life and provide more services in respect of technology and skills for poor and disabled people living in both town and countryside," says Xie Yan, One Plus One's director.

"Visually impaired people are able to participate in broadcast programming because they can use computers and online applications via special speech software. Rapid network development in China, podcasts and changes in traditional broadcasting have all created opportunities for visually impaired people.

"If blind people can participate in radio programme production, they will have the opportunity to participate equally and also provide better information to disabled groups.

"We hope the In Touch project will become a bridge on which society will be able to walk and understand this special group."

Jin expressed the hope of many visually impaired: "I feel very embarrassed and want to know as much as other people know."

But education is the key, Hallett says: "Before the laws for disabled people can truly be implemented, the first priority is for them to be educated and receive vocational training."

It's good that braille is taught to China's blind people from the beginning of school, he says. "Every visually impaired person ought to be able to read braille to get by," and he added that China is ahead of many other countries, where only the totally blind receive training in braille.

But in rural areas, where the number of blind children is the greatest, "many rural families feel the need to hide their blind children away," Hallett says. "Therefore they do not attend schools. Only a small minority of the rural blind receive an education. We need to help them."

Rights of the blind

Another barrier blind people face is the perception that they cannot contribute to society. The National People's Congress passed the Chinese Disabled Persons' Protection Law in 1991, providing a legal framework for China's disabled that contains certain benefits, such as free transport and exemption from local taxes.

"Although the framework itself is good, it still appears to be difficult to implement everywhere in China," Hallett explained.

"As more disabled people in China become aware that they have rights, perceptions are gradually changing. In a country as large and complex as China, this change is inevitably slow and uneven."

The World Service Trust project further attempts to raise this awareness of rights among blind people.

Besides the traineeship for radio production, it also aims to provide assistance to blind people who are not aware of their rights.

The recently launched Mobile Advice Clinic will call on several cities and rural areas in China to provide legal, educational and medical counselling to poor people with disabilities.

"The Mobile Advice Clinic reflects the technological development and achievements in its application among disabled groups," Xie says. "Through our practice and exploration of information, we can awaken them and help integrate them into society."

For the visually impaired, the key issue is to realize that they can demand just as much from the government and society as anyone else.

The China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF) says among its aims are to protect the rights of the disabled and ensure their equal participation in society and their contribution to economic growth and social development.

Through the joint efforts of the CDPF, the government and society, disabled people's situations have been considerably improved.

The only challenge is to make it easier for the blind to access the media.

The CDPF has been committed to promoting Internet accessibility and itself has an accessible website for the blind. The China Association of the Blind also has a newly established website accessible to blind people.

Last month, together with the Ministry of Information Industry and other relevant departments, the CDPF and the China Association of the Blind organized the Third National Forum on Information Accessibility, aiming to promote e-accessibility and work out relevant national standards in China.

Improving outlook

Although some visually impaired people complain about the slow pace of improving access to the media, Hallett is optimistic about the future.

"The CDPF is really trying to improve what they are doing," he says. "

The main problem is that it's too big and largely staffed by non-disabled people. This makes it hard for them to be aware of the needs and demands of the disabled population," Xie said.

Xie, One Plus One's director, added: "The CDPF plans to set up radio programmes for disabled people in each province, which will urge the media to take into account their needs, especially those of the visually impaired.

Participation in broadcasting will show their full contribution, and those actions will cause changes in able people's concerns for visually impaired people."

"At the same time, those actions will greatly influence the living conditions of other visually impaired people around the country and help the government enrich the cultural life of the disabled," said Xie.

(China Daily December 28, 2006)

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