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Digital Files Giving New Hope for Disabled Students

Posted May. 13, 2010 07:32,   


Kim Sang-heon, 19, entered the piano department of Seoul National University in March.

Though he had sat in the classroom, the blind freshman felt as if he did not belong in the class. When professors and his classmates watched books, solved problems, and held discussions, he struggled to listen but could not remember everything.

Shortly after the first semester began, his pleasure of being a college student was overshadowed by worries over campus life. Before graduating from high school, he had faced little difficulty because he had textbooks in Braille. He knew that many blind college students failed to complete their studies due to lack of study materials in Braille.

In September last year, however, the amendment of the Library Act has provided him with digital files since mid-March this year. According to the amendment, the National Library Support Center for the Disabled under the National Library of Korea can ask publishers to provide digital files of books for the blind.

In the past, volunteers used to write books in Braille by hand or record audio books. The library, however, can now produce Braille or audio books in a few hours with the help of tools that translate digital files into voice or Braille.

The library announced the formats of the digital files in January. After receiving applications from disabled college students, it asked 59 publishers to provide digital files for 155 books. Since the announcement, 58 digital files have been presented. Kim is the first beneficiary of the amendment to the Library Act.

After SNU Press presented the digital file of “General Korean Language,” Kim could participate in a general Korean language class with his non-disabled classmates from mid March. He can also read the book with the help of the Braille terminal, an electro-mechanical device for displaying Braille characters.

“Thanks to the digital file, I can do my homework and prepare for the next class. I’m really lucky,” he said.

He does not have, however, all the necessary digital files for his classes. Taking six classes in his first semester, he needs reading materials in five out of the six, but has full access to digital files in just one class. He is partly supported by digital files in three classes but has no digital files in one class.

Despite the revision of the Library Act, not all publishers have proactively participated in creating digital files. Many hesitate to do so due to fears that the originals might be copied and circulated in the market.

Seven out of 59 publishers have declined the request of the National Library of Korea to present digital files. Library official Lee Yeong-suk said, “The revised Library Act was implemented just a few months ago so a perception gap exists among publishers.”

The number of blind and severely disabled people who cannot read books in Korea is an estimated 350,000. Out of 50,000 books published every year, however, just 2,000 are presented in Braille or audio book form.

In addition, more than three months are needed to produce books for the disabled since volunteers have to type words or record their voices. Worse, most of the books are no more than study materials for middle and high school students.