Chinese Braille: Feeling Their Way

As blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng searches for a new post after his controversial departure from New York University, The Economist reports that some of China’s 17 million other visually impaired people are battling to claim their rights to higher education. From The Economist:

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 calledpinyin. 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.

[…] In 2002 Ren Zhengshao, 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. [Source]

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