E-books open new chapter for disabled

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


By the time Wong Ka-ho, 20, completed his A-levels this year, the young blind man had amassed 13 boxes of Braille textbooks for just four subjects. The books - 10 of which are needed to reproduce an average textbook - were back-breaking to carry to school.

But then electronic books came along and transformed his heavy load into a few dozen files saved on a single USB drive.

Wong, who attends a mainstream school, was the first pupil to benefit from a Hong Kong Blind Union pilot scheme launched last May that converts textbooks into e-books that can read text aloud or can display Braille text electronically.

The project - which lasts two years - received HK$3.8 million from the government's Quality Education Fund, as part of its effort to back innovative education projects. Outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen outlined in his final annual policy address plans to promote e-learning in schools.

Wong found it difficult to catch up with his classmates, as it was time-consuming to convert textbook material into Braille. He asked classmates to record the text with their voices, but worried about appearing bothersome.

'The biggest difference with e-books is I can take notes now,' Yeung said. 'In the past, we could not take notes in our Braille books because they did not belong to us, therefore we could not bookmark key points.

Now Wong's textbooks, notes and exam practice papers are converted into an e-book format. 'What I love about e-books is I can help myself and be independent,' he said.

The Blind Union has converted 819 books and served 104 pupils. The process takes a month, but may take longer if there are pictures and graphics that need explaining. The group even developed a local version of screen-reading software that can read text aloud in Cantonese.

'A Braille English dictionary takes up an entire bookshelf, and each book is as thick as a phone book,' said Blind Union president Chong Chan-yau. 'It is far easier to look up a word in an e-book.'

But it is not just the visually impaired who have benefitted from the project. Those with dyslexia or other physical disabilities, like Form Five pupil Yeung Siu-fong, who was born without arms, have also found them useful.

'It was strenuous to flip pages with my toes and I'd have to lean forward to read the text as my eyesight is poor. This made my back very sore,' said Yeung, who now reads e-books on a tablet. 'Now I can turn the page with a light sweep of my toe.'

The process of converting a textbook into an e-book is arduous and requires a lot of effort. Chong said the workload could be lightened if publishers would give them an electronic version of their textbooks. The six major textbook publishers have signed up to provide electronic files.