The Marrakesh draft treaty, which will allow free distribution of books in disabled-friendly formats, is not enough by itself without a wider culture of providing for accessibility in learning

Last month, delegates from around the world gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, to sign a draft treaty of immense value to the visually handicapped and people with diverse difficulties in accessing print. The draft treaty signed at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) conference, which allows for a free distribution of books in an accessible format across national boundaries, will come into effect when it is ratified by at least 20 member states. Very broadly, book accessibility signifies the availability of reading materials in special formats such as Braille, and audio book. Currently, disabled readers, as well as their friends and family, sit before scanning devices for hours on end to make printed material available in accessible formats. In the process, they waste precious time duplicating the material.

The draft treaty, if ratified, will make specialist agencies responsible for producing and distributing accessible formats of books among themselves and individual readers around the globe. These agencies may also evolve into informal “custodians” of copyright laws across national borders. The treaty may also end the duplication of work in efforts by existing agencies to make books accessible. India seems almost certain to ratify the treaty, and blind readers like me look forward to the “treat” of accessing a great many number of books from the West, hitherto available only to those who live in that part of the world. Given the multiplicity of stakeholders involved, however, the free flow of accessible books across borders will take at least a decade to materialise. Meanwhile, we should endeavour to build a robust culture of knowledge accessibility.

“Talking Books” and similar specialist services that sought to make books accessible were present in the United States even during Helen Keller’s time. Now, as we conclude a historic treaty on the deaf-blind activist’s 133rd birthday, Anglo-American institutional networks are in a position to make available at least a minuscule amount of knowledge that exists in English. Although governmental and voluntary sector organisations in India do a sterling job on this count, we will no doubt benefit from a stream of books from western organisations such as The Learning Ally, The Bookshare, and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Peterborough Braille library. However, any flow of books across borders, especially if facilitated by charities, will run into opposition from domestic interest groups. For instance, international services from a British agency may not find favour with disabled activists from Britain themselves — after all, such agencies run on British taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, accessibility is popularly conceptualised as a stream of books — in English — in diverse formats from the West; to turn this narrative around, one needs to ground “accessibility” in our cultural milieu of knowledge building. When this actually happens, an octogenarian grandma from London with a severe dexterity issue, and yet wanting to read Manto in Hindi, will be able to do so by borrowing a title from Delhi. Make no mistake; agencies such as RNIB could find themselves hard-pressed to meet her requirements for accessible audio books in Hindi, no matter how richly endowed and disabled-friendly they are.

Tapping language

The predominant and often inaccurate view that disabled readers always prefer reading materials in English can actually thwart the accessibility industry’s and activist efforts to promote learning.

In a bilingual educational setting like ours, it may be handicapping for someone, on considerations of accessibility alone, to opt out of languages other than English. Besides, our rich linguistic diversity in itself may be a learning opportunity for the industry at large. For example, it may come to learn how its clients with dyslexia perform in a medium such as Telugu, as opposed to English, about which considerable literature already exists.

Knowledge accessibility is not about a few specialist agencies coming together and making a thousand or so titles readable for everyone. Its leitmotif is universal accommodation. Take the case of a historic archive. An archive may be highly rated among historians for its holdings but may fail the test of accessibility if it is not usable by people with differing capacities. For example, a deaf historian will find it difficult to access a radio talk archive if the materials are available solely in an audio format. To level the field in favour of the historian, the archivist can transcribe the required radio talk into print.

Knowledge accessibility, universal in scope, entails catering to the needs of individual members in society. In this regard, we share a responsibility to make knowledge available for each other. For example, accessibility-conscious readers may refrain from highlighting passages in books that they borrow from public libraries. Prolific highlighting may wreck Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems used by blind readers. They also distract readers with an attention deficit, a score of reading difficulties, and for that matter anyone who is engaged in an intimate conversation with the written word on a page.

During childhood

People inadvertently indulge in such practices thanks to their limited exposure to the diversity of human capacities. One way to plug this exposure-deficit is to introduce the idea of difference during childhood itself, a time when one is relatively less biased against human variance. One may expose a child to various modes of writing, say, writing with a pen, a piece of chalk, a Braille device, and a Mouth Stick used by those who do not have hands.

Learning inaccessibility is a knowledge famine. A graduate student who sits in a library without being able to access its catalogue — let alone pick up a title — shares the predicament of our multitude who go hungry daily despite an abundance of food. One may offer him or her a friendly shoulder; and even better, lobby for accessibility services within the library. What we need is a nuanced accessibility ethics which acknowledges the existence of a knowledge famine among people with diverse reading difficulties - the draft treaty signed at Marrakesh is a good first step towards it.

(Hemachandran Karah is a visiting associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. E-mail: hemakarah@gmail.com)

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