○ An IT company in Beijing founded by a blind man, develops screen readers for mobile phones and provides job opportunities for blind people○ Many of its employees formerly worked as masseurs, the most common job for blind people in China due to a lack of other opportunities○ Together they are working to improve the technology literacy of blind people in China
Wang Mengqi, a blind IT engineer, works in an office of Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province. Photo: VCG
Since an accident took away his eyesight at 9, Cai Lei had been told by everyone around him that he could only become a blind masseur when he grew up.
But that was not something that appealed to Cai. "Being trapped inside a massage parlor isn't the life I wanted. The more people told me that I would have no choice but to be a masseur, the more I rebelled against the idea," Cai, who hails from Shiping county in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, told the Global Times.
But with few other options, Cai eventually accepted his fate. He learned massage skills in vocational school and worked as a blind masseur for 10 years in Guangdong and Yunnan provinces.
As of 2017, there were 12.6 million visually impaired people in China. While most of them do not join the workforce, the majority of those who do eventually become blind masseurs, the most common career for a blind person in China.
In 2010, however, Cai successfully broke free from his massage parlor life and started a new, unlikely career - as an IT software tester. He joined Protection & Ease, a Beijing-based company founded in 2008 by Cao Jun, a blind man who had previously run a massage chain in Beijing. The company develops screen reading software for the blind and helps them learn how to use smartphones and computers. It also provides opportunities for masseurs to get a second chance in life by working in IT.Access to life
By 2008, Cao had opened eight blind massage parlors in China after 13 years of entrepreneurship. Although he offered job opportunities to many blind people, he found that many of them weren't able to live the life they wanted.
"Blind people want to send short messages. They want to read. But these most basic needs couldn't be met at that time. I felt if I could let computers and mobile phones talk, and make them accessible, I would open a new window for the visually impaired," Cao, aged 45, told the Global Times.
In 2008, with the savings he earned from his blind massage business, Cao recruited several IT developers and started to develop Chinese-language screen readers for Nokia mobile phones, which was the most popular brand back then. In the years that followed, their business evolved from the Symbian operating systems on Nokia phones to Android systems and to smart home facilities for the blind.
Currently, of the over 40 employees at his company, over 30 are visually impaired or blind. Most of them work in sales, after-sales services and software testing.
Most of his blind or visually impaired employees have previous experience working in massage parlors, and changing their careers into IT was something beyond the scope of their imagination. Cao said due to the difficulty involved for the visually impaired in finding decent office jobs, most of his employees are very loyal. In the more than 10 years after his company launched, only two blind employees left.Limited options
Ai Xiaowa, who joined the company in 2010 working in customer services, gained her acupuncture and massage degree at Changchun University in Jilin Province in 2005. After graduation, she worked as a trainer for blind masseurs for several years but never really liked the job.
"Blind massage is suffocating. Most of them have to stay in a tiny room in a massage parlor for over 12 hours a day, waiting for clients. And there's no hope of ever being able to change your career," she said.
In 2009, despite strong opposition from her family, she resigned and moved to Beijing, trying to seek new opportunities, before she landed a job in Cao's company.
Cai echoed Ai's sentiment and memory of massage parlors. "It's a hard labor job that requires lots of physical strength. We go to work at 9 in the morning and cannot get off work until 12 at night because we don't want to miss a client. In order to earn more, we don't have days off and living in a constrained environment for such a long time makes me mentally exhausted," Cai recalls of his 10 years as a blind masseur.
For a long part of China's history, begging, fortune telling and busking used to be the only professions that visually impaired people could turn to in order to make a living.
Since the 1980s, the massage industry has been the top job option for the blind, as China's newly amended Constitution stated that the country and society should help make arrangements for the work, livelihood and education of the blind, deaf and other disabled citizens. According to a five-year plan put forward by the State Office in 1988, the government planned to establish 1,000 hospitals and clinics that hire 10,000 blind masseurs from 1988 to 1992 and aimed to allow medical institutions in a third of Chinese counties to provide blind massage services. In 2006, China further expanded the profession by vowing to train 50,000 blind masseurs and raise the total number of blind masseurs in China to 140,000 in five years.
The blind and visually impaired employees of Beijing-based IT company Protection & Ease, which mainly develops screen readers for those who are blind or have low vision. Photo: Courtesy of Protection & Ease
Although blind massage provided a way for the blind to make a living, it also killed off other possibilities. For most of the visually impaired people interviewed by the Global Times, becoming a blind masseur was something written into their fate since they became blind, and most people can't say no to the profession due to the lack of other options. According to a survey by Guangxi professor Mo Guanghui, who interviewed 37 blind masseurs in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in 2017, most respondents said "they had no choice but to become" blind masseurs, thepaper.cn reported.Greater meaning
For Cai and Ai, working at an IT company that helps blind people get access to apps and mobile phones opened up a new world for them. Cai said the changes that smartphones can bring to blind people's lives are far greater than the changes they bring to sighted people. "For example, calling a taxi is almost impossible for blind people as they can't see whether there's a taxi coming. But with car-hailing apps, they can now call a taxi as long as they know how to use the app. Food delivery apps and map navigating apps are also life savers for the blind," he said.
For Ai, part of the difficulty of her job lies in explaining how to use their software to blind people, which can be very testing as most of them have received limited education. According to the latest statistics, of the 85 million disabled people in China, only 1 percent have received higher education, as opposed to 40 percent for non-disabled Chinese.
"A lot of blind people, due to their lack of education and acceptance of their fate, stopped learning. They felt that if they need something, they could just ask others to help them. But learning how to use smart phones and computers can really change their destiny," she said.
Cai's job involves testing the company's software, collecting user feedback and turning them into Word documents for IT developers to refer to. In addition to visually impaired users, his job also requires him to provide consultations to IT companies that want to make their apps or websites more accessible to the blind and the visually impaired. Recently, he's been in touch with JD.com, one of China's biggest e-commerce platforms, which is seeking to optimize its user interface.
Cai said while the tech industry in China, as a whole, is more aware of the issue of blind accessibility, the lack of a common standard makes it difficult for them to better tackle the issue. "A lot of tech companies and app developers want to enhance their apps and make them more blind-friendly, but they don't know where to start," Cai said.
But many efforts have been made in the past year. Last December, ifeng.com launched a campaign to increase awareness of the importance of access for the blind to mobile phone operating systems and apps, and said it will invest 10 million yuan ($1,494,209) to support companies that take efforts to upgrade their systems.
Chinese smartphone companies are taking action too. "Xiaomi has established a user feedback chat group with over 450 users who are blind or visually impaired. We will invite them to participate in the development and testing of our new functions in the future to make sure that these functions are accessible to them when they're launched," Xue Kang, project manager of Xiaomi's blind accessibility project, told ifeng.com in December.
Newspaper headline: Vision for the blind