It is only too evident to disabled people on a daily basis that disableism is all-pervasive. Sometimes it is intentional. Mostly it isn’t. It ranges from “The little acts of degradation to which other people subject us, those little reminders to us that we need to know our place in the world,” such as the comment in the supermarket, the unwelcome question from a complete stranger, to the systemic acts of discrimination. An example: the NZ government can take a child for adoption from a disabled mother without her consent, under Section 8 of the Adoption Act, simply because she is disabled.
These actions, large and small, but no less damaging to the individual disabled person, flow from a deep-seated, ancient cultural view that disability of almost any kind makes you a lesser being than others. There are also degrees within the disability world of this “lesserness.”
Disableism on a grand scale
Disableism also exists on a grand and international scale. Access to information, in particular books and print material, affects many disabled people. The publishing industry and public libraries have traditionally taken little account of accessibility until recently, seeing access for print-disabled people as a charitable endeavour, partly because of technical limitations. Now technology has advanced to the point where the demand for access cannot be ignored, although copyright has been a thorny issue for the various interests involved.
April 23 was International Copyright Day, and the links between this and Blogging against Disableism Day, May 1 seemed fortunately coincidental. There are now powerful tools available to us to address at least some of the systemic disableism. They flow from the acceptance that human rights, codified for disabled people in the CRPD, can drive change.
The book famine
Literacy, and access to printed material is something taken for granted and expected in western countries. Yet in countries such as New Zealand only 10 percent of print material is available to blind and vision impaired and other print-disabled people. In developing countries it can be as little as one percent. Millions of people worldwide, including children and students are being denied access to books and other printed material.
In NZ and similar countries there are delays in accessing important education materials such as textbooks. Many general book titles are not available in accessible formats at all.
The Marrakesh Treaty
The World Blind Union and others have worked hard to combat the “book famine.” The result is The Marrakesh Treaty, which will directly address the problem. Firstly, it will enable “authorised entities,” such as blind people’s organisations and libraries, to more easily reproduce works into accessible formats (braille, DAISY, audio, large print, e-books, etc.), for non-profit distribution. Secondly, the Treaty will permit authorised entities to share accessible books and other printed materials across borders with other authorised entities.
Currently the international system does not allow for cross-border sharing, leading to needless and expensive duplication of books by organisations with limited resources.
When the Marrakesh Treaty comes into force, cross-border sharing will be legal, which will help avoid duplication of reproduction efforts in different countries. The Treaty will also enable countries with large collections of accessible books to share them with blind and print-disabled people in countries with fewer resources. This will help print-disabled people in developing countries.
Cross-border sharing is essential for combating the book famine as blind and partially sighted people are among the poorest people in most countries, and organisations for and of blind people often don’t have the resources needed to produce enough materials in accessible formats.
Ending the disadvantage
Those of us who are blind and print-disabled want to be able to go to a bookshop or library to pick up and read the new bestseller like everyone else. Blind and partially sighted children want to be able to go to school and to become literate just as much as their sighted peers do.
I am angry and distressed when I find smart disabled people with their life choices and opportunities hampered by their lack of literacy. Sometimes it is about teaching and opportunity, but often it is about access to age-appropriate print materials. Education is the key to life opportunity, such as fulfilling work, continuing learning and community participation as citizens. But it is also important to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading to expand our horizons and enable us to explore other worlds beyond our own experience.
Ratifying the Treaty
The Marrakesh Treaty will begin to tackle the book famine, once it is ratified and implemented. The Treaty and its benefits will only apply to countries that have ratified it, and it will only come into force once it has been ratified by 20 countries. Currently, the Treaty has been ratified by 15 countries, making it possible for the treaty to come into force in 2016.
It is important that those of us who will benefit from the Marrakesh Treaty pressure our governments to ratify it, and end this disableism, the lifelong disadvantage of lack of access to the wider world of learning and the simple pleasure of reading enjoyed by everyone else.