Braille IT Centre for North Korea

In North Korea, only foreigners have access to the Internet. For North Koreans there is an intranet. All public bodies are connected via the intranet, so users get important information there. The facilities for blind people had have no access to the intranet till 2013, because prior there has been no IT technology for blind people in North Korea.

In order to work with the computer, blind people need a special software. This software is called screen reader. They translate the writing on the screen for the blind users in acoustic and in Braille script. To make it possible that a blind person can read the Braille script, they need to have an electro-mechanical device. This device is called Braille display.

The introduction of this technology is a true revolution for blind people! This technology allows blind people to live a more independent life. The NGO TOGETHER Hamhung wanted to make this technology accessible to the blind people in North Korea. For this purpose, a Braille-IT Centre should be built up. With the support of the Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR, the Christoffel Blind Mission and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were able to implement this project in 2013.

There are four important facilities in North Korea for blind people: three blind schools and a Braille publisher. For each of these facilities a Braille display and a Braille printer was bought from the company Optelec and brought to North Korea. The North Korean side had to ensure that the necessary cables are installed in the schools and in the Braille publisher to establish an intranet connection, because the IT Braille Centre should connect the four different facilities to each other.

So far, so good! However, since the best technology is useless if one does not know how to use it, TOGETHER-Hamhung engaged a blind IT expert who was willing to come to Pyongyang and teach blind people how to use the technology. And so it happened that René Ludwig came to North Korea for three weeks in autumn 2013 to teach about Braille IT. 
The course was super exciting for everyone! Here are some impressions:

The participants of the course were really eager to learn and very motivated! They learnt the English alphabet, the 10-finger-writing system and how to use the Braille display simultaneously. René was highly impressed! Unfortunately, the blind participants did not speak English, so an interpreter always had to translate.

The staff of the Korean Federation for Protection of the Disabled (KFPD) and the staff from the Education Committee as well as the school board were also really impressed. A deaf project manager, Mr. Robert Grund, organizes a course for the blind. And a blind trainer leads this course with blind participants! Disabled people working with disabled people – something like that was never seen before in North Korea!

Being convinced by the learning abilities from the blind students, the officials of the Education Committee promised that schools for blind and deaf people would have the same curriculum as regular schools. And foreign languages should be taught as well! What a milestone in the education system for the deaf and blind in our host country!

It was really a very big deal to carry out this project and it was worth it! Nevertheless, we are still at the beginning regarding IT technology for blind people: In North Korea, an operating system is used, for which no screen reader software and no software to use the Braille printer exist yet. Apart from that, one Braille display and one printer per school are not enough. So far, very few students hat the chance to learn how to use the technology. That is why we want to support the North Koreans to spread this technology among the blind in North Korea and to develop own technical solutions.

So there is still a lot of work to do and we look forward to make progress with our Korean partners!

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