In 1998, Hands-On Saigon began teaching English to the blind children of Bung Sang Club in Ho Chi Minh City. They enjoyed learning basic conversation and had fun with English songs that involved action of any kind—especially clapping, stomping their feet, standing up and sitting down again. About a year later, one of the older blind students whose English was fairly fluent, Mr. Hung (on the right side of the photo on the below right), began assisting with the English classes and became good friends with the Hands-On Saigon team.
The Bung Sang Club director, Mr. Dao, a blind musician/music teacher who’d taken the children into his own house, expressed his strong desire to see a computer center set up specifically for the needs of the blind. So, after some research and requests, Hands-On Saigon found donors who provided two used computers. A company based in Sweden provided 2 secondhand computer printers (embossers) designed exclusively for Braille—some of the first in Vietnam—and two manual Braille writers (pictured below). This was a very small start, but there was more to come.
Mr. Hung, the talented young man in the photo above with Kjell, of Hands-On Saigon, became blind as a toddler after he contracted measles. He’s a talented musician and a skilled English speaker and really wanted to learn how to use a computer, so he was one of the first to study computer technology. On the right, Kjell is holding one of the manual Braille writers and a sheet of the special paper used for making the embossed dots. Below (left) are the two Braille writers and on the right, Kjell guides their hands while he explains to Mr. Dao, Mr. Hung and another student about the new Braille embosser.
Gradually, Hands-On Saigon was able to provide more equipment (below, left) to help the blind in Vietnam enter the technological age. Blind students (below, right) are using the portable slates and stylus for writing in Braille. It’s very tedious as there can be up to six dots per character and the impression must be made in reverse on the back side to form the words. Each student uses their own slate and stylus for their studies. The very heavy Braille writers (above left) are much faster, but not very portable.
In late 1999, there was suddenly a new development. Hands-On Saigon had not been aware of it, but discovered that they shared the same dream as several concerned Italian men. In 1995, Carlo Pizzato, had set up one computer workstation for Bung Sang Club, but it was no longer in use when Hands-On Saigon became involved in 1998, so they weren’t aware of his continuing interest. However, he returned with a friend and over the next two years until the end of 2001, Bung Sang Club received considerable help through their funding from the EU. They set up a computer room with 10 workstations to teach computer skills and also began to train the most promising blind students to be teachers. Mr. Hung, below right, was one of those first chosen for training as a teacher.
At the beginning of 2002, however, due to legal complications, the entire set up had to be moved to another location. Some of the students made the commute across the city to study at the new place and their newly-trained blind teachers continued teaching them there. But, this proved difficult and Bung Sang Club wanted their own computer center now, more than ever.
Hands-On Saigon began again in earnest to work on setting up a computer center of their own, which they could share with other blind Vietnamese.
Above left, Mr. Dao, the director of Bung Sang Club, (also blind) receives one of four UPSs donated to help stabilize the power flow as there are often power cuts and surges in Vietnam. Above, in the photo on the right, standing at the far left, is the computer/IT expert who was an enormous help with all the (many) technical problems with this highly specialized equipment, as well as programming the difficult tonal language of Vietnamese Braille for printing.
By 2004, the project had expanded to two rooms with 20 computer workstations, enough for many poor blind children and youth to receive training and exercise their computer skills, as well as access the Internet for their academic studies. They also now had trained (blind) instructors who were happy to help in both locations. Amazing!
Visually-impaired students use screen reading software called JAWS to hear what is on the screen and can learn many applications including simple e-mail and messenger services, writing and editing using Microsoft Office Suite, as well as perform Internet searches.
The introduction to the internet coupled with new computer skills virtually and literally opened a whole new world of possibilities, making new communication tools in their own language available for the first time. For the first time they are no longer isolated in their blindness.
Students can now study academic subjects on their own, access information, listen to music, play games, read books, make new friends and chat with them online. For most of the students this has also resulted in increased self-confidence and becoming active participants in their communities. About one hundred blind Vietnamese have benefited from and continue to use the equipment in this center.
The older, more advanced students and those who became instructors also have the opportunity to learn about editing and recording music, web site creation and maintenance, and software programming. All of that is because of both the screen reading software called JAWS and, in limited cases, use of a Braille reader—the latter piece of equipment costing thousands of dollars and not easily available in Vietnam. Above, Mr. Hung is preparing material to be printed by the Braille embosser on the left of the photo and below.
Above, a Braille embosser and on the right is the print-out.
Above left, is a Braille reader, used to read text output by the electronically raising and lowering of dots through a flat surface. On the right, this young student is using a normal keyboard and headphones, listening to the JAWS screen reading program tell her what’s on the screen.