Have you ever picked up an exciting book and found that pages are missing or damaged? Nothing could be more frustrating. Most readers feel the same way when they download a much anticipated book onto a tablet or smartphone, only to find that it is garbled or unreadable.
For blind and print-disabled book lovers, it is even more frustrating to know that a helpful book on a topic of interest exists, but is closed to them because it is not available in accessible format. This is a serious and life-altering issue for the estimated 314 million visually impaired people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of them live in the Global South.
The Marrakesh Treaty
Now comes word that a Diplomatic Conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) hosted by Morocco adopted “the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled” (Marrakesh Treaty) on June 27, 2013. The treaty’s adoption was timed to coincide with the birthday of political activist, author, and educator Helen Keller.
Ending “Book Deserts”
Once ratified and implemented by states parties, the Marrakesh Treaty will help end “book deserts” around the world, where persons who are blind or who have print disabilities are denied access to the full range of print materials. The World Blind Union notes that “of the million or so books published each year …, less than 5 per cent are made available in formats accessible to VIPs [Visually-Impaired People].” The treaty allows for easier and more uniform cross-border access to, and sharing of, reading materials in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and accessible digital files.
Why was such a treaty necessary? These days, can’t people with print disabilities just download the books and articles they need or want from the internet?
Not so easy.
Barriers to Access
Among the challenges:
- Not all online reading materials (such as pdfs) are accessible to screen reading software and other assistive technology. Some materials appear only as unreadable “images” (i.e., photographs of a page, not identifiable words on a page). Some materials can be converted into readable text with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, but this requires access to the relevant software, equipment, and training.
- Conversion of books to Braille, large print, audio, or electronic files requires political will, time, and resources that not all international bodies, governments, and private actors have been willing to support, even though the benefits of including millions in human and social development far outweighs the limited costs.
- Access to Education and Technology: Many visually-impaired persons are poor because of discrimination, lack of access to education and employment, and other domestic and international policies. If they are also members of minority or marginalized communities, they are even more likely to lack effective access to schools, learning materials, and assistive technology.
- Gender and Disability Discrimination: Girls and women with disabilities experience compounded forms of discrimination and exclusion from access to education in many societies. Although accessible materials may be available in their home countries, gender stereotypes and violence may limit their effective access to books. (Check out Malala Yousafzai’s extraordinarily moving speech at UN Headquarters on the right to education of women and girls, an end to poverty, and a commitment to nonviolence.) Continue reading