The visually impaired in Vietnam used to be locked out of learning tools available only in English, until KMDC came along. By Lien Hoang.

Dinh Dien has nothing near the fortunes of billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros. And yet he can do something they can’t: he can educate blind Vietnamese.

Dien’s KMDC charity is a good reminder that all the money in the world can’t buy something if it doesn’t exist yet. And what didn’t exist was software in Vietnamese for the blind or visually impaired — until the arrival of KMDC, which stands for Kim Tu Dien Multilingual Data Center. It’s the philanthropic arm Kim Tu Dien, a top seller of electronic dictionaries.

“If you have money and you help the disabled or help the poor, it’s normal,” Dien says. “But in Vietnam, even if you have money you cannot buy software for the blind.”

That’s where Dien stepped in. He and his team of developers are creating a computer program that teaches English to blind Vietnamese. One of the team members, Nguyen Minh Tri, walked me through the lessons.

After Tri launched the software on a personal desktop computer, I used the TAB key to navigate to a drop-down box, and the arrow keys to select my learning level: book 1, 2 or 3. Assuming users can’t see any of this, the program read out each of the options as I scrolled through them. It was the same when I hit TAB again to get to the next drop-down box, where I selected which unit I wanted to learn from (each book has 12 units).

“It’s a big help because such programs for the blind are rare,” Tri says. “It helps them learn better and faster. Compared with normal people it’s not the same, but it’s an improvement.”

KMDC hasn’t completed the English-language software, but its other products are widely used already. Dien described the most ubiquitous: an electronic dictionary.

At Nguyen Dinh Chieu special high school in Ho Chi Minh City, he said they still have an old, 60-chapter, physical braille dictionary whose volumes take up a 5-metre-wide bookcase.

“The book is inconvenient,” Dien says, noting that one page of written text could fill 10 pages in braille.

So he digitised the dictionary, which has become the de facto resource for blind learners across Vietnam. Tri also showed me the dictionary software, which looks exactly like English-Vietnamese translators on any computer.

“B,” a voice from the computer said, as Tri typed the letter, followed by, “O, O, K.” He hit ENTER, and the voice recited a definition for “book.” The programme also reads out all the functions that a user can go through, like “File” and “Save.”

Other ideas still in beta are software that enables blind people to type mathematical symbols, and a translator for mobile devices. But those require money, and KMDC has had less of that since the global economic downturn began. It relies on profits from the business side of Kim Tu Dien and has cut staff to 13, compared with 30 a few years ago. KMDC gives away the products and software it develops.

“I have a lot of ideas but I don’t have enough human resources,” Dien says.

Other products that are distributed through the charity’s website, Kmdc.com.vn, include braille printers and devices to display braille. Be sure to turn down your volume settings, because the website greets you (in English or Vietnamese, depending on your selection) with a loud audio introduction to the group and its mission.

KMDC collaborates with schools, libraries, and associations for the blind, which most provinces, cities, and even wards have.

Tri said he has visited schools for the blind around Ho Chi Minh City, where he saw pupils and teachers using needles to write out assignments in braille. He conducted classroom observations from primary to high school levels, and did sit-down interviews to find out what the students could use and what KMDC could work on. He said they weren’t shy about expressing their needs.

“They’re really happy, active and friendly,” Tri says.

The e-book that Tri is working on with his colleagues is based on the Let’s Learn English series by the Vietnamese Education Publishing House. When the software opens, it gives blind learners an audio overview of how to use the program. I tried out the first unit, which has a drawing of colourful children playing in a schoolyard. It’s divided into sections for vocabulary, exercises, practice, and English songs. Users can try out their English skills by repeating sentences after an audio guide, filling in the blanks, singling out words that don’t belong in a group, singing along, and reordering sentences.

KMDC has been a way for Dien, the adviser, to exercise the twin passions for which he’s earned doctoral degrees: computer science and linguistics. Dien is deputy head of intelligence technology at the city’s University of Sciences. He has collaborated with Microsoft to “Vietnamise” their products, and his charity work has attracted recognition in Vietnam at the city youth union level all the way up to the national level. His software has been downloaded by Vietnamese and Viet Kieu across the globe.

“I want to apply my technology to help Vietnamese people,” Dien says. “If we can use my knowledge to help the disabled, I think I’d be very happy.”