Sao Mai opens windows for the blind

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SaigonTimes English - 32 month(s) ago 2 readings

Sao Mai opens windows for the blind

Any blind person wanting to write and publish songs can now do so if they’re lucky enough to be a student at Saigon’s Sao Mai Computer Center for the Blind.

Sao Mai opens windows for the blind

By Bradley Winterton in HCMC

Instructor Nguyen Thanh Son demonstrates use of the recording studio in Saigon’s Sao Mai Computer Center for the Blind. He’s been at the Center since its inception in 1999 and can’t remember how many students he’s taught since then. - Photo: Anh Sy
Any blind person wanting to write and publish songs can now do so if they’re lucky enough to be a student at Saigon’s Sao Mai Computer Center for the Blind.

Music has always been a special province of the visually impaired, but now with Cakewalk Sonar software, acquired by Sao Mai earlier this year, they can make money as song-writers as well. In four hours a really talented student might make as much as a million dong.

When the center was founded in 1999, however, the key requirement was software that would allow visually challenged students to read their monitors. This was achieved by Jaws for Windows that “speaks” whatever is on the screen through headphones. Writing on a keyboard has always been easier for the blind - it was conquering computer reading that was the real breakthrough.

I learnt all this when I accompanied the Italian founding member of the center, Carlo Pizzato, to Sao Mai’s new premises at 122 Truong Vinh Ky Street in Saigon’s Tan Phu District.

In the mid-1990s Carlo was working in Italy on technology for the use of children, while also taking photos as a hobby (albeit sometimes a remunerative one). In 1994 he was offered the opportunity to go to Cambodia to take pictures of some missionary work. While there he heard about a blind music teacher in Saigon who desperately needed some assistance.

“So I came to Saigon and here, in District 10, I saw for the first time a place where around 50 blind people were gathered, all playing music. Originally I only planned to take photos,” he said, “but soon they asked me for help in getting hold of the new technology. Back in Italy I started to investigate computer technology for the blind, and began to envisage a special center catering to their needs. Meanwhile I started to raise some money using my photos, and visited Vietnam whenever I could, usually twice a year.

“I eventually submitted projects to both the EU and the Province of Bolzano in Italy. To my astonishment both were approved! That was in 1999, and the total sum was around 120,000 euros.

“So we set up the center, originally in District 10. And now here we are, 12 years later, in a new building and supported by an on-going variety of projects, each raising money for different aspects of the work.”

Vice director Phuong Thi Thom told me she’d been with Sao Mai from the start, having previously worked for an association dealing with many categories of disabled people in Saigon.

“Carlo transferred his technology to us and then we opened as a separate institution,” she said. “We now create our own audio books for blind students at both school and university level, and soon hopefully at post-graduate level as well.

“There are around 20 students here at any one time, usually staying for about two months. They either pay for themselves or are sponsored by one of Carlo’s projects. The cost can be as low as VND700,000 per month per student. Some go on to work for foreign companies – one, a former teacher here, now works for a call center, for instance.”

Nowadays Carlo Pizzato runs a project funded by private donors to train blind girls from the Vietnamese countryside in computer skills. They then disseminate these skills among other visually-impaired people in their home provinces.

“There are many problems connected with this work,” Carlo told me as we left, “and for each problem there are several possible solutions. Based on my experience, I think it’s advisable to have at least two or three solutions ready for every problem!”

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