OPINION

Ending the book famine for the blind

A text to braille computer display. Photo by visualpun.ch (cc 2.0 by-sa).
Marcus Low    

A treaty that has the potential to change the lives of millions of blind people is at risk of being hijacked by publishers who show no sympathy for the difficulties faced by blind people across the world

It has been estimated that only 0.5% of books in South Africa are available in formats accessible to blind people. For the United States, less than 5% is the often quoted figure. I am slightly skeptical of these statistics, but there can be no doubt that the situation is very bad. It is what some call a “book famine”.

In practice it means that many visually impaired learners and University students in developing countries don’t have access to textbooks. Even at the comparatively well-off Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, it was up to volunteers to scan and edit the textbooks I needed during my studies. I received many books late. Others not at all. (If you wonder why the most likely place where you will see a blind person is sitting outside CNA with a guide dog collecting money, at least part of the reason is that access to education —and thereby employment— is significantly restricted by poor access to books.)

Twenty or thirty years ago little could be done about the book famine. Printing braille books is simply too time-consuming and resource intensive. Technology has since changed things completely. Today visually impaired people can read books on computers using text-to-speech technology, magnification, by means of so-called braille displays (expensive devices that have one line of changeable braille), or normal audio books. Technically speaking, every book on the planet that was once a word, text or other kind of file can now quite easily be made accessible to blind users. Instead of 0.5% or 5%, we have the technical capacity to be close to 100%.

Yet, even in the era of iPhones, Google Books and pocket-sized supercomputers, the book famine persists. There are two reasons for this.

First, publishers have simply failed to make books accessible to a sufficient degree. For a book to be sufficiently accessible, a visually impaired person has to be able to read it in a way that is convenient and allows for meaningful study. You may think that the Kindle’s ability to read books aloud makes it accessible, but this is a very broken form of accessibility. You are limited to the Kindle’s text-to-speech voices, you can only read full pages at a time (not by line or paragraph). I encourage Kindle owners to try it out and to ask yourself if you could go through three or four years of University in this way. It is clear Amazon simply doesn’t care that much. Neither does Apple, Google, Kobo, or any of the other large book retailers.

Publishers are of course obsessed with making it impossible to copy of their books. This is why they use specific file formats with layers of digital rights management on top of it and require specialized software (like iBooks or the Kindle apps) to read there books. Only as a reluctant after-thought do they consider access for the blind. The evidence of the past ten years is clear; publishers do not see the approximately 285 million visually impaired people on the planet as a big enough market to warrant more investment in making there products accessible. We thus have market failure – and market failure that makes the already obstacle-laiden lives of blind people more difficult than what it needs to be.

The second reason for the book famine is that international copyright law stands in the way of finding non-market-based solutions to making books accessible to the blind. To illustrate once again with my own university experience, even though a book was already scanned and made accessible in the United States, it was (and still is) illegal for someone in the U.S. to e-mail that accessible book to me in Cape Town or Stellenbosch. Instead, everytime someone in another country wants access to a book it has to be scanned and edited all over again – and even this is often technically unlawful. Fortunately, this absurd situation has not gone unnoticed and a proposed treaty aimed at solving the problem has made remarkable progress at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The treaty is not intended to change any essential aspects of international copyright law, but to create specific legal exceptions that would facilitate the exchange of accessible works between countries for use by reading impaired people.

In December 2012, it was announced that the WIPO would convene a diplomatic conference in Morocco in June 2013 to finalise the treaty. This is of course very good news, but, as all to often happens, meetings behind closed doors are adding complexities and technical hurdles that may rip the guts out of a potentially revolutionary treaty.

Much of the current debate revolves around technicalities relating to which entities would be allowed to distribute accessible books and about which books would qualify. The publishing industry wants strict controls over this, allowing only limited accredited institutions to handle the distribution of books and only books that are not commercially available in accessible forms to qualify. But every additional control will make it harder for an accessible form of a book to journey from the U.S. to a poor country. And, as we’ve seen, what publishers understand under the definition of ‘accessible’ really isn’t accessible enough.

If the right clauses make it into the final treaty, we’ll see a scenario something like this: A blind student at the University of Venda logs on to a U.S. library site. She enters her credentials and downloads the books she needs in the formats she needs. It is seamless and makes it easier for her to compete equally with her peers and to get her degree.

However, if U.S. and E.U. negotiators have their way, the scenario looks something like this: The same student applies to the University of Venda’s library. The library then puts in a request with say the South African Library for the Blind. Maybe a few days later the SA library for the blind forwards the request to one or two U.S. or U.K. based libraries. A week or two later they get back to the SA Library for the blind saying they want more guarantees that the student actually has a disability. More documentation is exchanged. Then, maybe another week later the U.S. library says they cannot provide the book since an ‘accessible’ version is already available on the commercial market in South Africa. The student will then be forced to buy a Kindle – after which she might be able to read the book in a manner of speaking, but would find it extremely difficult to quote from the book or to reference given the Kindle’s poor accessibility. Of course, none of this will matter since she would have already missed her essay deadlines and be having second thoughts about her University degree.

Publishers, mainly through the U.S. and E.U. deligations who are pushing there case, are so paranoid about the potential for piracy that they are willing to derail the real-world implementation of a potential treaty by inserting more and more onerous requirements and red-tape into the text of the agreement. They seem convinced that the treaty is not about education and access to books, but a plot hatched by ruthless blind software pirates intent on destroying the publishing industry.

Another reason for concern is the turn toward secrecy during key negotiations. A recent round of discussion on the text in Geneva was held almost entirely behind closed doors. Some civil society representatives were allowed to observe proceedings, but were not allowed to report on it. Not surprisingly, the secrecy requirement was also pushed for by the US and EU delegations. I have little doubt that most Americans and Europeans would feel deeply uncomfortable with the regressive line their governments are taking in negotiations. Unfortunately though, few people know about the treaty and about the cynical position that the US and EU negotiators are pushing. Incidentally, South African representatives have, by contrast, been strong advocates for a treaty that actually works for blind people, but we unfortunately do not wield that much power.

Many policy processes in international bodies such as WIPO, the United Nations, or the World Trade Organisation can drag on for years without going anywhere. Even when finalized, the impact of many agreements and non-binding treaties are limited. The treaty for the blind can be different. If a strong treaty is agreed upon, and if the moral imperative to say ‘NO’ to the book famine wins out over publishing industry paranoia, then it will make a big difference to the ability of blind people to access education and to partake more fully in the intellectual life of society.

Low is the editor of Equal Treatment, the magazine of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), as well as NSP Review, a joint TAC/SECTION27 publication. You can follow him on Twitter @marcuslowx

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