Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner and Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Jacqui Dean have announced New Zealand will ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to improve access to print materials for blind and visually impaired New Zealanders.
Literacy, and easy and universal access to printed material is something taken for granted and expected in developed countries. Yet even in developed countries such as New Zealand less than ten percent of print material is available to blind and vision impaired and other print-disabled people. In developing countries it can be a little as one percent. Millions of people worldwide, including older people, working people, children and university students are denied access to books and other printed material. This is the international book famine.
Blind and print-disabled people should be able to go to a bookshop or library to borrow and read the new bestseller novel or the latest celebrity memoir like everyone else. Blind and partially sighted people of working age need to access a wide variety of print materials, including books relating to the profession or job. Children and young people want to be able to go to school and university and develop high standards of literacy as much as their sighted peers do. But life choices and opportunities are limited by a lack or low level of literacy as a result of inaccessible books. Sometimes it is about teaching and opportunity, but more often it is about access to the same range of books as their sighted peers.
Access used to be much more difficult because blind and vision impaired people needed expensive specialised technology provided by specialist organisations to access reading material, books and magazines. Now accessible content can be read on accessible “out of the box” technology such as iPhones and iPads, although specialist technology which is slightly more affordable than it used to be is still available and widely used.
In New Zealand those who will benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty are the 12,000 members of the Blind Foundation. But Statistics New Zealand finds there are a further 168,000 (4%) of people with vision impairments. Their ability to read, even with correction, is affected too. They also need books in alternative formats. There are others who, for a variety of reasons cannot access print, for example, they are unable to hold a book.
The publishing industry and public libraries have traditionally taken little account of accessibility of print material until quite recently, seeing access for print-disabled people as a specialist and charitable endeavour. This has been partly because of technical limitations and the cost of equipment and production. Now readily available and cheaper accessible means of producing and distributing books accessibly, such as mainstream audiobooks and the ePub format for print has advanced to the point where the demand for access cannot be so easily ignored. Copyright remained a thorny issue for the various interests involved.
The Right to Read is an international campaign, and the advent of the provisions for access in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, (UNCRPD) has given focus and urgency to the issue. In New Zealand and similar countries there are still delays in accessing important education materials such as textbooks. Many specialist, literary and more popular general book titles are not available in accessible formats at all.
The World Blind Union and others have worked hard to combat the book famine. The result is the Marrakesh Treaty, developed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which directly addresses the problems of copyright access. The treaty enables “authorised entities,” such as blind people’s organisations, service providers and libraries to more easily reproduce printed works into accessible formats (braille, DAISY, (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) for the production of talking books, large-print and e-books, for non-profit distribution. It will also allow authorised entities to share accessible books and other printed materials across borders with other authorised entities.
The Treaty, which came into force in 2016, will help avoid expensive and unnecessarily duplicated reproduction of the same books in different countries. It also means that countries with large collections of accessible books can share them with blind and print-disabled people in countries with fewer resources. This will help print-disabled people in developing countries, and save much-needed resources in all.
Cross-border sharing is essential for combating the international book famine, as blind and partially sighted people are among the poorest in most countries, and organisations for and of blind people often don’t have the considerable resources still needed to produce enough materials in accessible formats.
The Treaty came into force with the required twenty ratifications last year. Progress towards ratification here is slow, despite efforts by the Blind Foundation and Blind Citizens NZ. Similar countries to New Zealand which have ratified include Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Canada, The UK, EU and the US, sources of significant amounts of print material in alternative formats, are still to ratify. There is support from publishers, authors and copyright bodies in New Zealand, but ratification requires changes to the Copyright Act. With the dissolution of Parliament in August completing ratification is impossible before the parliamentary election on September 23rd.