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Making books accessible to all

Circle of readers: “Joining the treaty is easy; ensuring that books become widely available to people who are blind or print-disabled takes patience and effort.” Visually impaired students preparing for an examination in Kerala. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup  

Today is an important day for blind and other print-disabled people across the globe, as it marks the entry into force of an international treaty designed to help deliver specially adapted texts to those affected by a range of disabilities that interfere with the effective reading of printed matter.

It is called the Marrakesh Treaty and today I am calling on other countries to follow India’s lead — as the first nation to join the so-called ‘Books for Blind’ treaty and then as a trailblazer in implementing the pact that will benefit not only India’s visually impaired citizens but millions more around the world.

According to the World Health Organisation, some 285 million people worldwide live with visual impairments. Meanwhile, the World Blind Union estimates that children who are blind have a less than 10 per cent chance of going to school — a situation that could be improved if schools had ready access to texts adapted for use by visually impaired children.

India, leading the way

The Marrakesh Treaty represents a significant step towards making books available to everyone, by easing the creation and transfer across national boundaries of texts in accessible formats such as Braille, audio, or large print. With access to information and educational materials, blindness need no longer be a barrier to learning, employment and full participation in society.

So far, 22 countries have joined the Marrakesh Treaty, but many more are needed: each new nation that joins brings along not only a population in need, but a wealth of printed matter that can more easily be made accessible in other countries.

Joining the treaty is the easy part, however. Ensuring that books become widely available to people who are blind or print-disabled takes perseverance, patience, and logistical effort.

First, the books need to be adapted into accessible formats either by libraries for the blind, organisations serving the print-disabled, or at the source by publishers (including Departments of Education) so that the texts can be “read” using assistive technology on computers, phones or electronic Braille devices. Once produced, these accessible books need to be distributed to the people that need them, including to populations that may live far from major urban areas.

These are common challenges in many countries and India has been a leader, having in June 2014 become the first country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty. And it did not stop there. India has not delayed in readying itself to ensure the Marrakesh Treaty benefits its people.

For example, the ‘Accessible India Campaign’ has provided a nationwide flagship campaign for universal access for people with disabilities. And India has begun implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty through a multi-stakeholder approach, which includes collaboration among key players such as government ministries, local champions like the DAISY Forum of India, and the private sector. This led to the launch in August of India’s largest collection of online accessible books called “Sugamya Pustakalaya”, which counts 2,00,000 volumes.

Building an accessible book bank

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a United Nations organisation based in Geneva, administers the Marrakesh Treaty and leads an alliance of private and public partners known as the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), which was established in June 2014 to support the goals of the treaty.

The ABC has established a centralised electronic multilingual catalogue of accessible books produced by libraries for the blind around the world. Through the ABC Book Service, which is free, organisations serving the print-disabled can supplement their collections of accessible books from their counterparts in other countries.

The ABC Book Service can assist in preventing the same book from being produced in accessible formats by more than one library, thereby avoiding duplication. It is hoped that Sugamya Pustakalaya will soon become a member of the ABC Book Service, thereby joining an international library-to-library service managed by WIPO in Geneva. Nineteen libraries for the blind from 16 countries are already participating in this service, and I am happy to announce today that over 1,00,000 loans have now been made to visually impaired individuals around the world through the participating organisations.

ABC is continuing to establish projects in India, including by training publishers, libraries and NGOs in the production of accessible books, as well as providing funding to produce educational materials in accessible formats. Without these materials, students either cannot access their curriculum or are dependent on books being read aloud to them.

In addition to implementing projects in India, ABC has also established training and technical assistance projects in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and it is estimated that 88,500 students with visual impairments in these four countries will benefit from ABC projects in the upcoming year. ABC plans to extend its capacity-building programmes to Africa and Latin America, helping ensure that these transformative uses of technology can boost access to books for people who are blind or print-disabled around the world.

Today, as the Marrakesh Treaty takes effect in India and elsewhere, India’s multi-stakeholder approach provides an excellent model for other countries to follow. WIPO looks forward to many more countries implementing the Marrakesh Treaty so that print-disabled people around the world can benefit from the new avenues to access now available to Indians.

Francis Gurry is Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

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