[Viewpoint] Light of knowledge for the blind

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[Viewpoint] Light of knowledge for the blind

A fifth grader from the Busan School for the Blind recently sent a letter to the National Library of Korea. She and her elder sister both have corneal opacity, but her sister still has some vision and can read if she holds the books close to her face.

“So my mom buys many books for my sister. I am so envious,” the blind girl wrote in the letter.

“It’s not that my mother does not want to buy me books. When I was young, my mother personally marked the Braille on short children’s stories so that I could read them with my fingers. Now, I want to read about other subjects. I’ve read most of the books in my school library. I want to read what my sister reads.

“There is no reason for the blind to not read books that others read. We want to become great people. For that, we want to read more.”

This girl won the cultural minister’s award in a book report competition for disabled youth last September. She dreams of becoming a writer. In the report that won her the award, she wrote, “It would be extremely wonderful if my books, filled with beautiful words, can touch the hearts of children. Just thinking about it, I feel happy.”

Although living conditions for the disabled in our society have improved, their access to knowledge has hardly been touched. In schools for the blind nationwide, the skills of massage treatment and acupuncture are still mandatory subjects. (Think about why.)

In Korea, about 350,000 people have impaired vision that bars them from reading. About 50,000 new books are published every year, and about 8,000 of them are children’s books.

Children without disabilities read about diverse subjects from the time they’re in kindergarten. A child with a disability, therefore, falls behind from his or her first step in life. Parents are limited in their ability to help them. When the disabled children enter middle and high schools, not to mention universities, there’s nothing more the parents can do.

It is, therefore, wonderful to see the National Library launch its Audio Book Sharing project. After receiving digital files of books from publishers and authors, the library converts the text to Braille and audio formats for the benefit of disabled readers.

Currently, Korea has 37 libraries for the blind. They are, however, very small and the collections were created with different formats, which creates difficulties and inefficiencies for users.

In the past, the libraries did not share information. The National Library recently developed a new system, the Korea Library Automation System to Help the Disabled, to resolve the problems. When the system is installed, disabled readers at any one of the specialized libraries will be able to search for books and materials they want to read from any other. They can print them in Braille, listen to them or take advantage of a door-to-door delivery service. The National Library pays for the Braille books’ delivery and return fees.

Starting July, private companies’ donations and the cooperation of KT will cut communications fees for library services for the disabled in half.

But what about the government’s contribution?

This year, the budget to make knowledge more accessible to the disabled was set at a mere 2.24 billion won ($2 million). This is still, however, a great increase from the previous budget of 640 million won. A little more money could improve the nation’s standing greatly, but we have been extremely stingy.

What we need to focus on now is content. No matter how good the technology is, if the content is bland or limited it will be of little use. That’s why the Audio Book Sharing project is important.

Of course, publishers don’t want their materials leaked out. Some worried that an employee of the welfare center for the blind leaked the digital file of the Korean blockbuster “Haeundae.”

To prevent any unfortunate incident, the National Library has applied digital rights management technologies to all materials and purchased insurance polices as well as prepared for thorough supervision of the members.

As we celebrate Unesco’s World Book and Copyright Day on Friday, it is my earnest wish that the project will succeed. I hope the project will help the blind girl in Busan achieve her dream of becoming a writer.

*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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