Feature: Removing barriers for visually impaired in information age-Xinhua

Feature: Removing barriers for visually impaired in information age

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-05-19 22:54:45

BEIJING, May 19 (Xinhua) -- Cao Jun, born blind, now has more ideas that previously seemed like wild wishes, such as shooting like a photographer and driving to work.

"This picture displays a spacious, bright office with exposed ducts all over the ceiling and long chandeliers. The walls and floors are painted white, giving a sense of simplicity..." Cao, founder of Protection and Ease, a tech company in Beijing, heard an audio announcement describing the photo he took in his office.

The software, which can interpret photos, was newly developed by Cao's company. According to Cao, it integrates AI models of picture understanding and adjusts the mobile phone view algorithm for the visually impaired.

"This is my favorite function. Especially when I go to a park with my family, I hear green trees, red flowers, and blue sky around me through the application, it's like all of a sudden my world is colored," said Cao, adding that many of his blind friends shed tears when trying it for the first time.

"No one understands the needs of the blind people better than I do," Cao said. "I want to use sci-tech based on general technologies like AI to help the visually impaired so that they can enjoy the same life as sighted people."

Like many with visual impairments in China, the 50-year-old made a living as a masseur when he was young. After years, he owned several massage parlors and earned his "first bucket of gold."

In 1999, Cao heard what enlightened his future on the radio: "In the 21st century, people who don't understand computers are equivalent to illiterates." "I'm already blind, and I told myself that I absolutely cannot also be illiterate," Cao said.

Despite not having received a higher education, Cao learned computer input methods by listening to relevant books. It took him more than a year to type his first sentence -- "I can really type."

Later, Cao also learned to develop web pages and even set up his own website. Hoping to share the happiness and horizons brought by computers and the Internet, he started a nationwide online and offline computer training program for the blind with the help of his family, benefiting more than 20,000 people.

The popularity of smartphones has reshuffled people's everyday life, including Cao's.

"Can smartphones be used as guides for us?" He proposed developing software for the blind to solve their problems in life, such as traveling, reading, and texting.

"In addition to a barrier-free environment, the blind also need new technologies to remove information barriers," Cao said.

In 2008, Cao closed his well-run chains, sold his newly bought house, recruited professional programmers after several twists and turns, and began investing in the R&D of screen-reading applications for mobile phones. Over the years, his team has developed a series of software products tailored to the visually impaired.

These apps can transform contents on the screen into audio instructions and enable blind people to "read" books, use WeChat, Alipay, GPS, and online meal ordering, and even play mobile games, almost everything that sighted people enjoy in the information age.

"Although the technology is not complicated, it can help solve big problems when applied in this new area," Cao said.

When Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates visited China in 2015, Cao demonstrated his products to him. "He said what I'm doing is great and encouraged me to keep it up," Cao recalled. "Although our business back then was not very profitable, his words reinforced my confidence."

According to the China Disabled Persons' Federation, there are more than 17 million visually impaired people in the country, among which about 5 million are completely sightless. Cao's products have reached about 1 million blind users, bringing them a brand-new life.

Cao's company now boasts 43 employees, about 70 percent of whom are visually impaired. Most of them work from home, answering after-sales calls, testing products, selling, and doing other work.

Wang Chao, a visually impaired young man who has been using Cao's products since he was a child, is now in charge of the after-sales service and some training programs at Cao's company. Earlier this month, he was invited to give an AI programming class to visually impaired children at the Beijing School for the Blind.

The AI programming class is a public welfare project jointly launched by Chinese internet giant Tencent and the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation in 2023. It aims to help visually impaired youth nationwide receive equal access to AI and programming education so that they can better embrace the AI era.

"Though I can't see the world, I always want to help others through my own efforts, make some contributions to society, and realize my self-worth," Wang said.

Recently, Cao purchased a car for his family, and he has a bolder dream.

"I believe in the near future, I will be able to drive a self-driving car from home to work," he smiled. "It will definitely be thrilling to control a vehicle like an able-bodied person."