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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: April 29, 2011 NO. 18 MAY 5, 2011
Voices for the Visually Impaired
The Mind's Eye provides soundtracks to normal pleasures for the blind

PERSONAL HELP: Wang Weili assists a blind woman to become familiar with the environment of the Mind's Eye Cinema (COURTESY OF THE MIND'S EYE)

Free service

Last summer, Liu Yanling became a volunteer for the Mind's Eye Library when it was in its planning stages. Since then, she has spent five hours a week in the recording room of the library, reading books aloud before a microphone. Liu became animated mentioning it would take only two more hours to finish her first audio book. The book, Letters to His Son and Others, is a collection of words of wisdom from a British diplomat.

"I know blind readers prefer interesting novels, but I choose this one instead. I think they can learn positive attitudes toward life from this book because it's really touching," Liu said.

Before an audio book can be offered to blind readers, it still takes one to two weeks for the finishing touches, the equivalent of proofreading with written text. Liu will be asked to return to correct any mistake. The last process is to convert the record into a Dasiy version using the latest technology to make sure blind readers can easily turn to the section they want.

More than 1,000 people like Liu, including college students and office workers, have committed themselves to the volunteer work here. They contribute time and their voices to picturing beautiful worlds in visually impaired people's minds.

This process would be much easier and simpler with voice simulation software able to read any text, but the library only accepts audio books recorded by a real person.

"The blind readers will feel like someone is telling a story for them. A real voice actually offers an experience of communication, and that means a lot to blind people," said Zeng Xin, a staff member who told Beijing Review audio books must include every word that can be found in a book, even down to publication information numbers.

"Blind readers may skip these, but you cannot deprive them of the right to have them. It's about respect and equal rights to information," said Zeng.

For blind people like Liu, the courtyard housing the Mind's Eye Cinema and Mind's Eye Library has become a great place where they can enjoy books and movies as normal people.

But not everyone is as lucky. China is celebrating astonishing development in its prospering entertainment industry, but the joy is always hard to share for the country's more than 12 million visually impaired.

There are more than 100 reading rooms for the blind among 2,000 libraries in the country, but those availing themselves of the service are quite few. Without services like the Mind's Eye Library, common libraries are not convenient for the visually impaired.

"It's not only a cinema and a library, it's the only place in the city that really belongs to them," said Zheng Xiaojie, Wang's wife and a co-founder of the two facilities.

Hard work

Having worked with Wang since the establishment of the cinema, Zeng is quite confident about her work.

"There are a lot of difficulties indeed, but it's a significant career, and things get better, sooner or later," Zeng said with a smile, although it was the third month without salary this year.

The team of staff at the Mind's Eye Cinema and Mind's Eye Library is composed of seven people, who worked without payment until 2007. The team survived the toughest times, but even now, the monthly salary for everyone is less than 2,000 yuan ($306), which is far from enough for relatively expensive Beijing life.

The cinema and library are run by the Hong Dan Dan Educational Exchange Center, an NGO founded by Wang and his wife to provide services for the visually impaired, and more importantly, to broaden their horizons.

In China, fundraising is often a challenge for public service NGOs such as Hong Dan Dan.

When enterprises decide to sponsor an NGO, they usually choose those having a wide range of beneficiaries to enjoy greater influence. For NGOs focusing on disadvantaged social groups, a long-term sponsor is always difficult to find.

With household savings exhausted, Zheng began a tough journey to borrow money.

"I kept asking all our relatives and friends until no one would answer my calls," Zheng said. "I even made calls to those guys who admired me in high school, but no one would offer more than greetings."

She said the first sponsorship Hong Dan Dan received was a monthly donation of 40 packages of milk from a dairy company. At the time, selling all of the milk was the No. 1 priority on the staff's agenda.

Despite financial difficulties, Zheng insisted all the services Hong Dan Dan offers must be free. "I know some blind people are from rich families, but free service is our commitment," she said.

For Wang and Zheng, their career is not about charity, but a responsibility to society that cannot be given up.

"Blind people are less represented in a society, and how they are treated can be a criterion to measure the level of social development. I hope more people will recognize its importance," said Wang.

As a former science researcher, Zheng said she believes what she and her colleagues are doing is to convert a social problem to a technical problem, and this will promote progress in society.

"Through these activities both volunteers and blind people can experience growth of the mind," said Zheng.

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