US student invents Braille system for visually impaired Uyghurs

A U.S. college student and a group of Uyghur researchers have created a Uyghur version of the Braille alphabet, at a time when the Chinese government is working to eradicate the language in its western Xinjiang region.

Harris Mowbray, 22, an undergraduate international relations student at the American University in Washington, D.C., has developed dozens of Braille alphabets, which allow visually impaired people to read and write through touch, for endangered and minority languages throughout the world.

Several of the alphabets have been officially adopted by their respective nations, Mowbray says on his website.

The language enthusiast and programmer has paved the way for visually impaired Uyghurs to read and write in the Uyghur language. Mowbray created the Braille script of the Uyghur language with the help of Uyghur scholars and linguists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the United States, Germany, and Turkey.

“I hope this Ugyhur Braille script is used widely,” Mowbray told RFA on Jan. 25.

“Through this script, visually impaired people will be able to read, write, study and even write emails.”

The Braille system was first invented in 1825 by French educator Louis Braille, who lost his sight in both eyes at an early age.

The new Braille script is based on the Uyghur Arabic alphabet — the official writing system used by Uyghurs living in Xinjiang — in which each sound is written independently, which is not the case with Arabic or other languages that use Arabic script.

The Uyghur Braille alphabet in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Harris Mowbray.

Mowbray used the Uyghur Arabic alphabet at the suggestion of the Uyghurs he consulted, because it is more commonly used than Latin- or Cyrillic-based versions mainly are used outside China.

But Mowbray said a software program can automatically change text from the Arabic-based Uyghur alphabet to the Latin- or Cyrillic-based Uyghur alphabets.

“You can use this program to convert the Braille scripts from one to another,” he said.

Mowbray also has created Braille alphabets for minority groups in Romania, Azerbaijan and Poland. He began working on a Braille alphabet for Uyghurs in January 2021.

“I realized many languages of the world, including Uyghur, did not have a Braille script, and so I started searching the internet and contacting Uyghurs [about it],” he said. “Creating a Braille script for a language is important because not only does it empower the blind, but also it strengthens the use of their own language, even when minorities are in a very difficult situation.”

The Braille alphabet. Credit Wikimedia Commons
The Braille alphabet. Credit Wikimedia Commons

Safeguarding the Uyghur language

The number of visually impaired people among the 12 million Uyghurs living in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region has never been disclosed by the Chinese government, which has stymied the development of a Uyghur Braille script.

A Chinese version of Braille was introduced in 1952 in China, which currently has more than 6.7 million blind people and another nine million who are visually impaired, according to a report written by researcher Anwar Ahmad in December 2021 that documents the Uyghur Braille script project.

But efforts to develop a Braille script for the Uyghur language were never completed, according to the report.

US university student Harris Mowbray in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Harris Mobray
US university student Harris Mowbray in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Harris Mobray

In 2000, China banned the use of the Uyghur language in government communications, which also blocked the creation of Uyghur Braille in Xinjiang. But independent linguists from a number of universities still researched the topic, said Enver Ehmet, director of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) Research Center and a member of the Uyghur Braille script research group.

“Even though they made a lot of positive suggestions and research findings, the relevant education departments always ignored them,” he told RFA.

Beginning in 2015, the Uyghur language was banned from school curriculums in various regions of Xinjiang.

As Chinese Communist Party policies in Xinjiang threatened the existence of the Uyghur language, members of the Muslim community who are living abroad have stepped up efforts to safeguard it.

The new Uyghur Braille alphabet would be introduced to the visually impaired in Xinjiang only if conditions allowed, Enver said.

“If it is said that our country becomes independent or if the right conditions are in place, then this text will be introduced to our blind brothers and sisters in our country,” he said. The Uyghurs call Xinjiang East Turkestan and aspire to gain independence from China and establish their own nation.

“The creation of the Uyghur Braille script is an important step in our attempts to safeguard the Uyghur language,” said WUC president Dolkun Isa. “The Uyghur Braille script will also ensure that those in the Uyghur diaspora who are visually impaired are able access this part of our cultural heritage, and transmit it to future generations.”

Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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