Books without borders give blind new opportunities


This article is part of our special report Europe’s Blind Spot.

SPECIAL REPORT / A UN Treaty signed by the EU in late June will make it easier for blind and partially sighted people to share audio and Braille books across countries, a move which experts believe could boost the educational level of the disability group.

Groups advocating blind people’s rights refer to the signing of the treaty with the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo) as "historical".

The treaty, signed in Marrakech on 27 June, enables blind organisations in different countries to share books in accessible formats (braille, large prints and audiobooks), without duplicating production. This was previously prevented by copyright laws.

Currently only 5% of all published books in developed countries and less than 1% in the developing world are accessible to blind and visually impaired people.

“We are extremely pleased that member states have reached an agreement on a very good treaty which will take another step forward in the inclusion of persons who are blind in society,” Maryanne Diamond, head of the World Blind Union (WBU) delegation at the Marrakech Treaty talks said in a statement.

“For blind and partially sighted people, access to books is fundamental for our social integration,” Guiseppe Terranova from the international relations office of the Italian Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted said in an interview.

“In Italy, our progress towards social integration started due to our rights to culture and education,” Terranova added.

It’s now “highly desirable”, Terranova continued, that the Marrakech Treaty be properly implemented by governments. Without action and implementation, the treaty is only worth the paper its written on, the spokesperson from the Italian Union stated.

Ending book famine for the blind

Thorkild Olesen, chairman of the Danish Blind Society, said that the treaty would have a huge impact on visually impaired people's lives in his country.

“It means that it would be easier for us to get hold of the books they have in English, German or French-speaking countries. We are good at these kinds of languages so it would mean a lot. It would mean a lot for our education because there are an extreme amount of books in the world and now we don’t have to make them ourselves, so it would be a lot of help for people who want a job and people taking an education,” Olesen said. 

The treaty is especially important because it would make it easier for young people to obtain non-fictional books in other languages, which are often necessary for university students to have read.

“There’s a huge demand for these kinds of books,” Olesen said. “Instead of having to re-publish an English book in Denmark and pay for that to be made, we’ll be able to get it faster and easier by asking them in the UK where they have already loaded it, if we could get it. We would save some resources and it would make things faster.”   

María Jesús Varela Méndez, who represents the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind, said the treaty would be most useful for small and poorer countries in the EU, but less relevant for bigger countries such as Spain, the UK and France, which are already able to translate books more easily. Nevertheless, the treaty would have a significant impact on blind people’s educational level, she said.

“I think that it will be an important step because I think that it will be possible to save some money while improving and increase opportunities for children and students in general to complete their studies,” Méndez said.

Both Méndez, Olesen and Terranova said they knew blind students who had to delay their university studies because they had to have books "specially made".

EU hesitating

According to the British daily The Guardian, the EU and the US initially tried to block the signing of the treaty over copyright fears.

Terranova who followed the negotiations closely said the European Commission and EU ministers were initially against the treaty and sided with the European Association of Editors who claimed their copyrights would be breached.

“The Commission also said that work could only be distributed in another country if that work is already commercially available in that country,” Terranova said, adding that counter-lobbying by nearly 100 MEPs caused the Commission and EU countries to change their minds.

Olesen added that the European Blind Union, which pushed for the signing of the treaty, had good cooperation with the European Parliament.

The MEPs “did what they could” to get it through, Olesen said, adding that several petitions in Parliament backed the treaty.

“This was of great significance. It was not because the Commission or the Council were happy about this [that the treaty was signed], but they were eventually pressured to support it,” the Danish Society chairman said.

“It’s a bit strange because one would think that they support free movement of all kinds of goods and products and these books are products. I don’t understand why they were hesitating,” he added.

Carmel Dunne, press officer at the Commission for the internal market and services, told EURACTIV that was unfamiliar with the EU executive's role in the Marrakech Treaty, but referred to a statement by Commissioner Michel Barnier:

"Our collective effort has made it possible to adopt a new international treaty that means that finally, the visually impaired and print-disabled community will be able to have access to the same books as other people. For too long, this community has been denied the access to knowledge and culture they are entitled to in exactly the same way as everyone else,” Barnier said.

The prevalence of eye diseases is increasing, with the global incidence set to double between 1990 and 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Blindness is a common complication of other diseases, or the result of common age-related complications.

Every five seconds someone around the world goes blind and 80% of blindness is preventable or curable.

There are 285 million people worldwide who suffer serious vision impairment. Of those cases, 90% occur in the developing world.

  • 10 Oct.: World Sight Day 2013

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