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Blind Student at Cal State Long Beach Tries Something
'Outside the Box', Learning to Speak, Read, Write Chinese

Pursuing a double major in Chinese studies and journalism would be challenge enough for most  students, but California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) student Anthony Vasquez does it without his sight.

Originally from Carson, the visually impaired resident of the campus' Parkside Commons likes a challenge.  Not only is Vasquez planning to add one of the most difficult and sophisticated languages on Earth to his English and Spanish, he plans to visit the faraway land in January as part of a CSULB anthropology class.

"I thought Chinese would be a really challenging language," said Vasquez, who began his studies at CSULB in 2005.  "As I thought about how China is becoming more prominent in world affairs, I decided I wanted to learn a language that lots of people speak and which I could practice here, too. Plus, I have a long-time interest in geography and, in our home, we have lots of raised maps."

Vasquez is the first to point out that overcoming the many obstacles in his way would be impossible without lots of support. He thanks Asian and Asian American Studies Professor Tim Xie, CSULB Language Lab Director Jeffrey Winters and Chinese studies graduate student Bret Everett, as well as the entire staff of the High Tech Center for Disabled Student Services.

Vasquez' journey to Chinese fluency begins with Everett's transcription of relevant texts into their Romanized equivalent and proper tone, which is typed into a word processor.  From there, Penny Peterson, coordinator of the High Tech Center for Disabled Student Services, transcribes the text into Braille.

"This way, I can do my own reading without having someone else there to read it aloud for me," he noted. "Penny received 140 of the more elementary characters which were embossed and labeled so that I could tell which is which. That way, I get to explore how a character looks. It gives me an introduction to just how complex these characters are."

Technology plays an important role in his quest.  He types with a screen reader, software that identifies and interprets what is displayed on the screen.  This interpretation is then made available to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons or Braille output.  He also uses a program called Speech Plus, which makes it possible to copy and paste individually created Chinese characters into a program that converts the characters into speech.  (Xie points out that the programs were donated by the Singapore-based Bider Technology.)

Next January, Vasquez will join anthropology Professor Scott Wilson and 15 other CSULB students on a two-week visit to the People's Republic of China.  "I won't be just a potted plant," Vasquez laughed.  "I'll help with research for the class project.  I hope immersing myself in Chinese will make me more fluent.  Plus, I'll be interested to see how the Chinese react to a blind person traveling abroad.  This will be my first big trip."

Vasquez is acquiring more than a new language.  He's practicing teamwork.  "One thing I've learned is how important it is to ask for help," he pointed out.  "Some people with disabilities are reluctant to ask for help because they think they will be turned away.  But I found that the simple gesture of asking faculty members for what I need to prepare for Chinese opened many doors.  I'm not going to be afraid to ask questions.  I've learned to be grateful and appreciate how much trouble people are willing to take time to help me out.  All kinds of people have been interested and caring about what I'm doing."

Vasquez encourages other students with disabilities to think about similar challenges but with a warning.  "Check it out first," he said.  "I didn't jump into this from out of the blue.  Five months before I started this, I checked out what technology had to be used.  The biggest challenge, I found, was accessibility.  How could I obtain the textbooks I needed in a form I could read?"

There's also a sense of adventure to Vasquez' plans.  "I wanted to try something that was outside the box of my experience," he explained.  "I wanted to try something way out there.  I have nothing to compare this to.  With all the help I've received, I can say this has been a great experience."

He is also optimistic about the future.  As his language skills grow, he expects his comfort level will grow, too.

"As time goes on, I think I'll be able to interact with people and find out more about their histories and what stories they have to tell," he said.  "I can do that now on a very elementary level and I know I'll do it better when I know more.  Maybe someday I can use what I have learned to help someone visually impaired from China to learn English.

"I remember talking with someone from Burma who told me that the Burmese, due to ignorance, differing beliefs about disabilities and limited economic resources, tend to shun the disabled," he added.  "I want to educate people that blindness is not a punishment.  I just happen to be blind but I don't let it dominate my life.  I could, but I have learned to live with it.  And I know I can help others by helping myself."

-- Richard Manly