The following is an interview with M.Tsengel, a specialist at the Ulaanbaatar City Public Library and head of the Innovation and Development Center for the Visually Impaired.
Hoping to reconnect partially and completely blind people like himself with the rest of the world, M.Tsengel became the first Mongolian to teach people living with visual impairment how to operate a computer and acquire information. He also introduced Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) standard to Mongolia and creates digital audiobooks for people with “print disabilities”, including blindness, impaired vision, and dyslexia.
Is it true that you were able to see until the age of seven? How did you lose your vision?
I was born in Batshireet soum, Khentii Province in 1982. My parents moved to Ulaanbaatar in 1988 to enroll me into a special school. I finished eighth grade at Special School No. 29 in 1997. Back then, people used to finish general education schools in eight years. Now, it’s been changed to a 12-year education system.
Eyesight in my left eye started deteriorating when I was three years old. I tried getting it treated at the National Center of Maternal and Child Health but eventually lost vision in that eye completely. Due to high pressure in the eye and brain, I had to get my right eye removed and became completely blind (when I was seven). In short, I became blind due to illness.
Do you remember how it used to be before you became visually impaired?
I was able to see a little back when I was in hospital. I remember everything becoming dark and things getting harder to do after I got the eye surgery. Back then, I was checked by American doctors from Orbis Flying Eye Hospital but they said there was no hope. I remember there were times when my eye hurt so much that I would lie unconscious for days. My mother tried everything she could so that I wouldn’t lose my eye or vision but there was no other choice.
When I was a kid, I used to ride a bicycle, do puzzles, and watch Russian cartoons. I can never forget the first time I saw colored TV when I came to my aunt’s home before getting the surgery. People who were born blind can’t imagine what colors are – they have no perception of it. If technology could make it possible for them to see for even the slightest moment, most would say they want to see their surroundings before anything else. I heard that abroad, scientists are testing implantation of an electronic eye and ways to enable people (with visual impairment) to see in black and white. If I could, I want to be included in these experiments.
It seems that being blind is no longer a challenge or disadvantage for you to work. When did you become interested in technology?
I had two choices (after finishing eighth grade) – to either work at the factory for the visually impaired or continue my studies and get higher education. I met with a couple of directors of general education schools with my friend to enroll in ninth grade but all of them told me that they can’t allow a blind person to study in an ordinary school. Much later, I finished 10th grade at Special School No. 116 for children with visual impairment.
In 2000, I learned English on my own. At the time, I contacted Santis Training Center for help and their Director Orgilmaa supported me and allowed me to attend their course free of charge. My biggest goal for learning English was to provide technology that would allow information and communication to become more accessible for the blind. My teachers used to say that the use of computers and smartphones are increasing and with everything becoming digital, one will have to study technology one way or another. Therefore, I founded the Internet and Information Center for the Blind in 2002. I carried out a study in the first two years. I researched what kind of technology are available for people who are blind internationally, including braille display works, audio devices and programs. I initiated a new project in 2004 and in the following year, I created a studio for digital audiobooks at Special School No. 116 with the support of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International. I changed the name of my NGO to Innovation and Development Center for the Visually Impaired and set a new goal to create new ideas, commercialize and make them competitive in the market. People living with disabilities can initiate and create new technology too. They can translate international standards/ technology to Mongolian and adopt the internet into their daily lives.
How did you learn to use the internet?
I wasn’t able to enroll in college or university but I studied computer science and technology abroad. In 2007, I joined an international training for visually impaired youth in the Asia-Pacific region. I then specialized in this area in Thailand. I first started teaching computer science and holding workshops at the Rehabilitation Center of the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind. So far, I’ve provided basic computer skills and knowledge to over 70 people. I have also fixed computers and renewed a couple of software to aid people with visual impairment.
A large number of people with visual impairment make a living by giving therapeutic massages. However, you pursued knowledge and learned to operate a computer. What kinds of challenges did you face?
I’ve dedicated 15 years of my life to computer, internet and technological development. It wasn’t possible to do this alone – many people and organizations helped me along the way.
In 2010, I introduced DAISY standard, expanded services at the Ulaanbaatar City Public Library with financing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and opened a studio for creating DAISY books. We distributed DAISY books to organizations working with the visually impaired and provincial libraries. This provided a wide range of digitally accessible books to people, not just audiobooks. In particular, people with visual impairment used to have audiobooks with only four commands – start, stop, fast-forward and play – until 2010. By with DAISY standard, it’s possible to listen to books, read texts and even “see” picture books. We can even skip to the next line, page or chapter. It is like physically reading a book while holding it in your hand.
So far, more than 300 books have been developed with this standard. We hired radio and television hosts to read them out. In the past, books were read by only a male voice but since we introduced Dangina Program last year, books are now available in female voices.
How do you select your books?
People living with visual impairment send their requests for which books they want to be made audible. The Ulaanbaatar City Public Library’s Reading Room for the Blind has a reading schedule as well. Most people enjoy listening to children’s books, foreign novels, and Mongolian literature.
How many people visit the Reading Room for the Blind?
As it is a public library, it is open to every blind and visually impaired persons living in Ulaanbaatar. Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, we used to get around 5 to 10 people a day. Some would borrow books to read at home. As the reading room has been operational for quite a long time, I doubt there’s anyone with visual impairment who wouldn’t know it.
Due to issues such as roads and infrastructure, people face challenges coming to the library. There are some people (with visual impairment) with families that don’t allow them to go outside. Especially girls and women are locked down at home, restricting their opportunity to socialize.
In the past, we didn’t have our own library. Nowadays, there are more and more capacity-building training for people with disabilities. Even in the digital world, people with disabilities are becoming more active. The biggest challenge we face are environmental ones. Starting from traffic lights with sound to accessible public transportation to tactile paving, we need a comprehensive and accessible infrastructure.
Have you ever been injured due to inaccessible infrastructure?
I was able to travel by myself well since curbs were made in 1998, but now they’ve deteriorated. There are so many risks such as hitting a lamppost and falling into a hole. I’ve fallen into a manhole two or three times and was hit by a car several times and even injured my back.
I heard you introduced a program called “Bat” for Mongolian users in 2013. Can you tell me more about this?
That’s right. There are three main technology in the world dedicated to people with visual impairment. While researching, I realized that locals living with visual impairment could get information from all around the world if these technologies were available in Mongolian. The first is the DAISY system that I mentioned before. The completely and partially blind people can use it to reach books, textbooks and other print materials. Those with poor vision can zoom in to make the letters bigger and see better, or you can listen to the audio version. With the Mongolian National Federation of the Blind, National University of Mongolia, National Information and Technology Park, and Thailand’s NEC Tech Company, we carried out a project aimed to develop a Mongolian audio program on Microsoft SAPI in 2011 and two years later, Bat Program was introduced to the market. This created the opportunity for the visually impaired to read and write in Mongolian Cyrillic letters on a computer. A digital braille technology was adopted afterward. We incorporated the Mongolian digital braille alphabet into over 10 software programs, including international screen readers and the widely used braille converter. Over the past 15 years, I worked on these three technologies and helped the visually impaired adopt them into their daily lives.
Students at Special School No. 116 are said to have insufficient textbooks and learning materials. Does the Innovation and Development Center do anything in particular to address this issue?
We have sent a proposal to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Sports to introduce our technology to the education system for people with special needs. Many parents and students contact us. We made accessible 138 textbooks used for general and higher education curriculums in 2018. These textbooks will be used starting this fall when schools open. We had made books and textbooks audible for the blind but had to wait two years (for them to be included in education curriculum) due to lack of computers and devices which are required to utilize the accessibility technologies. For instance, there are nine digital braille devices at national level. Public libraries of Dornod and Sukhbaatar provinces have two devices each. We could advance the education and online training system for children living with visual impairment if we can increase the quantity of this device and use it on a larger scale.
Does Special School No. 116 have this device?
Not at the moment. The school uses braille writing mechanical machine. It’s been like that for at least 50 years. I hope the school starts using our technology. Visually impaired children can borrow our DAISY books and listen to it at home. There are around 1,000 braille and audiobooks at the Reading Room for the Blind.
What do you plan to do in the near-future?
People can now install the Mongolian audio program on their computer and get information from the internet. Digital braille device is very important for special needs education as well as audiobooks. Amid the pandemic, children with visual impairment are falling behind when it comes to online lessons. JICA proposed to buy our technology and give it to children through the ministry. We’ve made textbooks for subjects other than mathematics, physics and chemistry audible. Widely used items such as thermometer and blood pressure monitor have also been made accessible. Audible thermometers are now being manufactured. We plan to put them out on the market next month. I plan to increase the number of accessible books and print material in the future.