A first step in the right direction: access to knowledge for the visually impaired in India

By Tony Kurian

It is a matter of great significance that India was the first country to ratify the Facilitate Access to Published Works to Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities (Marrakesh Treaty), which was adopted almost a year ago. By taking this step, the government has given a new life to aspirations of the visually impaired and print disabled populations of India.

The treaty has the potential to end the well-known book famine. The non-availability of books and other published works in accessible formats acts as a barrier to the full and effective participation of visually impaired persons in society. The treaty empowers countries to introduce a set of limitations and exceptions to their copyright laws to permit the reproduction, distribution and availability of published works in accessible formats. The treaty permits both authorised organizations and disabled individuals to convert published works into accessible formats. In broad terms, accessible format means any format that will enable a visually impaired person to access and use information.

While the ratification of the treaty in itself is a big step, much still needs to be done to translate the potential of this initiative into actual benefits. Sadly, current practices and mechanisms in our universities for the reproduction and distribution of books in accessible formats are not enough. At present, the responsibility of creating accessible formats falls upon the shoulders of students with visual impairments and few universities have formal structures or coordinating mechanisms for this purpose.

Relatively simple interventions could make a drastic difference. The first step, in keeping with spirit of the treaty, is to appreciate the right of persons with visual impairment to equal access to information. Every institution of higher education should be mandated to undertake an accessibility audit of its reading lists and to determine the number of inaccessible titles. Efforts should be directed towards bridging the deficit. The responsibility of creating accessible formats should be that of universities and the conversion to accessible formats should happen at the university level.

Universities and organizations should establish a National Accessible Books consortium. This consortium could be modelled after the recently launched Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), a multi-stakeholder partnership which includes WIPO, and should own and manage a national accessible repository. Given that many visually impaired readers across different universities read the same titles as a part of their course work, this repository could avoid duplication by digitising books in accessible formats.

The requirement for accessible books is not limited to academic works. It should cover all published works. Unfortunately, a majority of our public libraries do not cater to the needs of the visually impaired. Libraries should be encouraged to make books in accessible formats available by using the provisions of the treaty. Involving a large number of local libraries and participants will ensure that more vernacular and local content is made available in accessible formats. We should also ensure that children with visual impairments no longer miss the pleasure of reading comic books, and no person should have to forgo the thrill of reading a lifestyle magazine due to their disability.

The Marrakesh Treaty has the potential to transform the dreams of many into reality. Our reliance on the market did not yield the expected result in providing accessible books. Completely relying on voluntary organizations and efforts of individuals can only yield partial results. The need of the hour is backing from the government and the State. This will require more effort beyond ratifying the treaty. If implemented, these measures will make the benefits of the Marrakesh treaty a reality in the lives of persons with visual impairment. Only then, can all the objectives laid in the preamble of the treaty—including increasing opportunities for visually impaired persons to participate in the cultural life of their community—be fully realized.

Tony Kurian is an MPhil student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He is interested in the issues of accessibility and rights of persons with disability.

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