Weihong Li

Born in 1952 in the verdant valley of the Pingyang, Shangdong Province of China, Weihong Li became blind when just a young man. At the time, China had few services to offer those who were blind, and education opportunities were nearly non-existent. Weihong Li, however, chose to defy the odds by becoming the first person who was blind to pass the adult college entrance exam. Since then, he’s devoted his career to breaking down barriers, forging new paths and perceptions not only for those who are blind, but for the sighted as well. He is the former vice president of the Chinese Braille Press and is currently a member of the presidium of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. In 2013, he was elected Chairman of the China Blind Person’s Association. Here, Li speaks candidly about his early experiences navigating the world of the blind in his native country, and his persistent efforts to expand career opportunities in China for those who are blind.

All six chairmen in the China Blind Person’s Association have gone blind, and I’m one of them. There are 17.31 million people who are blind in China and over 60 percent is the result of accidents, diseases, or a genetic predisposition.

My own blindness was caused by hormone-induced glaucoma when I was a young man. Each spring in Beijing, my eyes would swell due to an allergic reaction to pollen. At the time, my doctor prescribed a so-called advanced medicine, which was to use cortisone on the whites of my eyes. Although considered an anti-inflammatory, cortisone was later deemed unsafe for long-term use due to its hormonal properties. In my case, it increased the intraocular pressure in my eyes and caused my optic nerve to atrophy. I had surgery on my left eye, which failed. I didn’t dare risk having surgery on my other eye in case that failed, too. So in 1974, at age 22, I became completely blind.

I have never forgotten the struggles that I’ve suffered since becoming blind. At that time, I believed life was unfair, and I hated my fate. Once I went to a massage training course for the blind. During one of the sessions, I was very moved by the story of one young man who introduced himself to us. He told us that he had just graduated from high school and had received a college acceptance letter. On the third day after receiving the letter, he went out to play ball with his friends and suffered retinal detachment and became blind. I asked him how he handled it and he said: “I was lying in bed, doing nothing, just wanting to die.” In particular, I understood him, since I had experienced similar desperate moments. So he wept when he told us his story, and we all wept with him. We’ve all have had those same hopeless moments, so we understand these dark moments of despair.

At the time, I was five feet, ten inches tall, and weighed only 99 pounds. Because I was under so much mental stress, I had nightmares every night. I even attempted suicide several times. My parents tried to keep me motivated. At home, they hired a music teacher to give me lessons who was the best accordion player in a famous national ensemble. They also bought me a new tape recorder so I could play music. But I was not ready to accept my reality as a blind person until one day my father took me to the Braille Press, which used to be called the Print Factory. I hadn’t heard anything about Braille. When I read my first Braille book, my heart warmed. That first day I bought a lot of Braille books so I could learn it. I felt like I’d found a new way to live my life and I became motivated to overcome my destiny.

My mother also took me to a retirement home for people who are blind and I met someone who used to work at the Print Factory. His home was very clean. My mother suggested that I touch his furniture. I touched everything and recall that even his cooking pots were clean. Ever since then, I knew it was important for those who are blind to keep themselves clean and to pay attention to their appearance. Now, I basically do my laundry every day. Even though people who are blind cannot see things, they should still live life among the living.

Overcoming the Challenges

I was initially assigned to the Beijing Rubber Wujin Fuli Factory and worked there for four years. I joined the Youth League, and then the Communist Party. I was later transferred to the Braille Press where I worked for twenty-six years. I was first hired as a proofreader. Then I was promoted to group leader, section chief, director, assistant director and finally vice president. Although I’ve never attended a formal school for the blind, I’ve become an expert in Braille and receive a government salary. Braille changed not only my fate, but also the fate of many others.

Working in publishing, I was determined to do my best. Prior to 1983, there was no way people who were blind could formally study at universities, not even special training schools or long-distance educational programs via television offered opportunities. In 1983, some universities started to accept working adults as students who were blind and who passed the entrance exam in their independent study programs, which were offered at night and on weekends.

I went directly to the recruitment office to convince them to let me take the exam. There were no Braille textbooks for the independent study program. At first I asked friends to read the textbooks to me. Then I converted them into Braille. At that time I could only study after work, even though I was tired and under a great deal of pressure. There were several sighted colleagues of mine enrolled in the independent study program, but, in the end, I was the first one to take and pass the adult college entrance exam. Being blind, one has to accept the suffering, but in the end, one also has to move beyond the limitations. My personality is unyielding. I like to do my best and I believe in perseverance.

Nowadays, many exams are equipped with Braille examination papers and a separate examination room, but back then I didn’t even have my official ID ticket for the exam. I first listened to the examiner read the questions, and then I converted the questions into Braille. The answer sheets in Braille were different from those for sighted people. So they used to record my answers first, and then they would ask others to take my answers and fill in a traditional answer sheet. It took a lot of manpower, but people were very kind back then and they loved helping those who were blind to live a better life. When I finished the exam, the examiner said he didn’t spot any wrong answers. So I passed the exam and majored in business management at Renmin University of China. I later became the first graduate who was blind to earn an Adult Independent Study Diploma.

Living Life as a Self-Sufficient, Able-bodied Person

We know that the cornea captures seventy percent of the focusing power of the eye. Once one loses his or her vision, one faces great difficulties in daily life. Some people believe that deafness causes a barrier between people, but blindness not only isolates one from relationships with others, but from their surroundings as well.

In China, many people who are blind live lonely lives and cannot work in the same way as the sighted. Those who are blind or who have low vision have always been excluded from mainstream society. In fact, in Hubei Province, a survey found that the divorce rate among those with low vision was as high as ninety-five percent. For people who are blind, their families are considered a safe heaven, but to lose your family is the toughest hit.

There are currently about 2.3 million National Service Soldiers in China, which is almost eight times fewer than the estimated blind population in China. Although you can see the soldiers in the streets, you don’t see people who are blind in the streets. China has built thousands of kilometers of walking lanes for the blind. Unfortunately, the more lanes built, the more management problems that have occurred. In the end, many of the blind are afraid to walk in these lanes due to safety reasons.

China’s Association of the Blind has dealt with many disputes over the lanes for the blind. For example, in Shenyang, Liaoning, a man who was blind bumped into a parked luxury car because he couldn’t see the car. He knocked his cane against the sides of the car, trying to determine what it was. The driver grew angry and said, “How could you use your stick to knock on my luxury car?” The driver then hit and injured the man so badly that he had to go to a hospital.

In the beginning the police were sympathetic to the man who was blind. But once the police learned the identity of the driver, they went silent. The Shenyang Blind Association asked for our advice on how best to deal with this case, and we told them that they must be strong and insist that the driver apologize. If the driver refused to apologize, we would contact the media in Beijing and expose the incident. People who are blind don’t even know how to fight back even if they wanted to. A man was beaten due to an innocent mistake and he shouldn’t have suffered for nothing. In fact, it was the driver who was blind—blind from his heart! He eventually apologized, but in the end we never knew the identity of the driver.

In China, many people who are blind don’t live integrated lives because they aren’t allowed to participate in society. Why, for example, is massage therapy the only profession offered to those who are blind? Higher education is barely available to them. There are too many rules in the provisions of the “college entrance examination guidance,” so those who are blind have very limited options to study. Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, only China and North Korea don’t allow people who are blind to obtain a higher education. World Blind Union Asia Pacific even posed the question directly to the Chinese: “Why is China lagging behind Mongolia, Cambodia and Laos?”

Those who are blind, like many able-bodied people, aim to survive when they come into this world, not to wait for a handout. Many people still do not have this understanding and do not know how to create a friendly environment for them. In fact, disability is not a misfortune but rather an inconvenience.

The truly important things in life cannot be seen by the eyes, but felt through the heart. Those who are blind have a relatively strong ability to read minds, but they don’t think in images. They have strong logic and abstract thinking skills, as well as strong memories. They are conversationalists, too. People who are blind need to utilize their strengths so they can be useful to society. A low vision Chinese man, for example, discovered that he could be useful in the United States by creating a senior companion company. He knew that many elderly Americans in general are lonely because their children are not around. Some elderly Americans enjoy being around people who are blind because they’re trustworthy and like to chat.

Those who are blind are not stupid and have great potential. We have trained the blind in rural areas to learn how to do massage, grow plants, and raise farm animals. There was a man who was blind who raised seven heads of cattle on his property. When I asked him: “ How do you keep from mixing up the cows when you milk them?” He showed us in his front yard. He put a barrel in one place, and trained his cattle to automatically come. He told us that when it was milking time, the cattle knew to come to him. He just needed to use his hands to squeeze out the milk. There was another man who was blind who raised a flock of sheep. When he walked with his cane, his sheep would follow him. So the cane became like a conductor’s baton for them. I asked him what he did before he learned how to take care of sheep. He said that he was lying in bed alone almost every day. Now, he can earn about $5000 in net income per year. He’s married and lives happily.

The work stability of those who are blind is actually much greater than the sighted, especially in the telephone sales industry. We have organized several groups of call-center trainings. The first batch of blind trainees still work there, but the sighted tend to changes jobs more often.

Maintaining a Happy Family Life

It’s not hard to rebuild the confidence of those who are blind if they have jobs. They’re happy when they find out that they’re not useless. Many of us are the same, whether we’re full sighted or not.

I got married after I went blind. My wife, a sighted person, was my co-worker in the rubber factory. I was her group leader. The sighted can see feelings expressed through others’ eyes, but I could not see them. Yet, I felt her love through her loving and caring actions. At that time, if anyone came to help me after work, I knew it was she. She loves me because she knows that I am motivated and kind. She is quiet and loves family. Whenever I was tired after work, she would give me a massage. To maintain a happy family life, the blind have to do the same as the sighted. We need to be responsible to our families.

We have one daughter. She certainly went through some tough times having a blind father. I have never discussed my blindness with her because I don’t want to burden her with it. I have barely visited her schools. My daughter would introduce her friends to me and tell them I was the blind. Today my daughter is married and has a child. Ever since she was little, she would come home and give me hugs. I don’t know how to describe her face, but I can touch her face. I know she is pretty.

Last, I would like to give some advice to my friends who are blind. They should find a way to make a living. It’s very difficult if you have no one to ask for help. Try to make a practical goal for yourselves. Live as an able-bodied, self-sufficient person, not as a dependent person waiting for mercy. Self-reliance is not only our national spirit, but it’s the spirit of the blind as well. Those who are blind deserve to be part of the living; they should thrive and be treated fairly and respectfully.

by Ying Li

zgmx.org.cn (China Blind Persons’ Association)

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Excerpts from the Austin Basis Dec/Jan 2014-15 Issue:

Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner

China — Weihong Li

Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights

Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast

Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015

Articles in the Austin Basis Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Never Halfway!; Humor — Oh, Life; Geri Jewell — Tis the Season to Remember; China — Braille, My Twist of Fate; Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner; Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights; Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015; Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast; Long Haul Paul — A Distraction from Beyond; Bad Boys — EEOC Sues Dillard’s for 2 Million; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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