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.
Similar anecdotes abound. On social media platform Zhihu, a blogger noted the braille elevator buttons in their apartment complex had the “Up” and “Down” symbols switched around. Zhang recalls an entire WeChat group where people with visual impairments shared their experiences of awkward braille signs, one member finding braille on a handrail in a subway station giving no warning about a stairway or indication of its direction—rather, it just said “handrail.”
China adopted its first tactile writing system, based on Louis Braille’s code of six dots representing 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, in the 1870s, after the British missionary William Hill Murray established the Hill Murray Institute for the Blind (later renamed the Beijing School for the Blind). The institute owned a braille Bible, which inspired Murray and Chinese teachers to combine Braille’s system and the Kangxi Dictionary into Kangxi Braille, also known as the 408 System or the Murray Numeral System, using numbers from 1 to 408 to represent 408 frequently-used Chinese characters.
Since Kangxi Braille was based on the Beijing dialect, and the numbering system was difficult to memorize, various forms of regional braille developed in the 20th century based on pinyin. To standardize these regional forms, the Ministry of Education (MOE) began to promote Current Braille or “New Braille” in 1953, a system invented by Huang Nai, then-chairman of the China Association for the Blind and Deaf, that combined Louis Braille’s system with pinyin.
In the 1970s, Huang invented Two-Cell Chinese Braille to make up for the lack of tone markings in Current Braille, which contained a number of confusing homophones, adding an additional braille mark on each syllable to represent tones. Due to its complexity, however, Two-Cell Braille remains less widespread than traditional forms of braille among the visually impaired today.
In China, children with visual impairments can learn braille at specialized schools run by the local ministry of education up until they graduate from middle school, though there are a few of high schools for the blind. Free braille courses are also available for adults through local chapters of the government-run China Disabled Persons’ Federation.
But this is far from enough to ensure mass literacy for the visually impaired: In a 2021 paper, Luan Ou, editor of China Braille Press, stated less than 10 percent of China’s visually impaired can read braille, as there are just 26 schools in China catering exclusively to them, and mostly just teaching the language at a basic level.
Specialized schools also separate children with disabilities from the mainstream school education system, making it harder for them to obtain university education and to merge into mainstream society after graduation. Since 1988, the MOE has championed “inclusive education (融合教育)”—initiatives to help students with disabilities attend regular schools alongside other children.
The MOE claims 95 percent of children with disabilities in China are enrolled in school as of 2020, but less than half of them (including 7,546 visually-impaired students) attend mainstream public schools. Mainstream schools have been slow to make provisions for visually-impaired students, such as braille textbooks, tactile pavements on campus, braille public signage, and teachers with special education training.
One barrier for inclusion in schools is a shortage of books published in braille. As of 2017, the Beijing-based China Braille Press, the only national non-profit press offering braille and large-print books and journals, has published over 60,000 books in 9,000 genres, a ratio of one braille book for every 288 people with visual impairments across the country. Much of the output is academic and professional, removed from the daily living and entertainment needs of ordinary people with visual impairments.
A limitation of publishing means education textbooks swiftly become outdated—Zhang started elementary school in 2002, but remembers his teachers using outdated textbooks from the 1990s. Liu Fei, a math teacher in the Wuhan School for the Blind who has participated in compiling textbooks, tells TWOC it can take up to three years to adapt a set of textbooks into braille.
The lack of braille publishing has boosted the development of voice technology. For visually impaired people who don’t know braille, audiobooks provide a gateway to education and entertainment. In a 2019 research paper on audio resources in public libraries, Yuan Hailong, professor of law at Anqing Normal University, found that 58 percent of readers with visual disability use audiobooks, but such books fail to meet the needs of the visually impaired as a whole due to a lack of funding, staff, and quality content.
Despite the assistance of new technology, however, a lack of braille infrastructure continues to limit the education and employment choices of people with visual impairments. A 2020 report by Xinhua News Agency stated that a mere 200 visually impaired students across the country are admitted to mainstream universities each year.
Some provinces have refused to let students sit standardized admission exams, while many schools also refuse to enroll students who pass, claiming to lack braille test papers and textbooks, as well as instructors qualified to teach in braille—all of which had been made mandatory in all state-run universities as of 2008 according to the PRC’s Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons.
Until 2014, students with visual impairments could only attend one of four universities in China and choose from just three majors—acupuncture and massage therapy, rehabilitation, and music performance techniques.
That year, however, a 46-year-old masseur named Li Jinsheng became the first blind examinee to take the national college entrance exam (gaokao) in braille after repeated negotiations with authorities in his native Henan province. Though his scores were too low to qualify him for university, Li said he hoped his story could blaze a trail for blind students to choose careers beyond traditional options like masseuse and piano-tuner.
According to state-broadcaster CCTV, a record number of 11 students from six provinces and regions took the gaokao in 2021. Some universities that have enrolled visually impaired students since 2014 have provided audiobooks, digital textbooks, braille printers, and electronic screen readers to make up for a lack of braille books.
But authorities in Hubei province refused to let Zhang take the postgraduate entrance exams in 2019, claiming they had no resources or facilities to support blind students, and “no precedent” for admitting visually impaired students into postgraduate programs. He was only allowed to take the exams after three months of relentless negotiation with the local government, posting a letter to the governor of Hubei in a public message board of the People’s Daily website.
Last September, Zhang became the first blind student to attend Beijing International Studies University. With few braille books and study materials available, he mostly relies on a computer and his classmates’ help to finish his coursework. After graduation next summer, Zhang plans to study abroad to take advantage of “more blind-friendly universities and facilities.”
In public areas, technologies such as voice broadcasts in elevators and AI assistants that can read texts on digital screens are reducing people’s dependence on braille. The Hongdandan Visual Impairment Cultural Service Center, a Beijing-based NGO that provides community services to the blind, recruits volunteers to record audiobooks and standard Mandarin pronunciation guides to help the visually impaired improve their competitiveness in the job market.
But founder Zheng Xiaojie doesn’t think the modern technology can replace braille as, “Technology helps the visually impaired integrate into society, but it is by figuring out [how to read] braille that they receive systematic education and develop cognitive abilities.”
Liu, the math teacher, agrees. “Learning braille conforms to a child’s learning process, just like how sighted people start by [learning language], and then are able to seek and build knowledge,” he says.
Educators like Liu see a future where new technology will work in tandem with braille for the greater inclusion of people with visual impairments into mainstream education and social services. “When you speak about education for the blind—blind people are people first of all, right? They live in the same world as everyone else, and require the same knowledge, it’s just that we need some special methods to make up for some abilities they lack,” he says.
“The most important part of education is to bring these kids [with visual impairments] back into society,” says Liu. “It’s to let them know that they don’t just have to become masseurs, but can do anything.”