Braille Monitor                                                August/September 2013

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Literacy for the Blind without Borders Ending the Book Famine

by Fredric K. Schroeder

From the Editor: Dr. Fred Schroeder is first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and the first vice president of the World Blind Union. Following is the speech he delivered on July 6, at the NFB convention. This is what he said:

I am pleased and proud to tell you that we have an international book treaty for the blind. On Thursday, June 27, 2013, a diplomatic conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) adopted a treaty entitled the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled.

The treaty contains two major provisions. First it calls on nations to amend their copyright laws to make it easier to produce more books for the blind. As you know, for many years United States law has allowed books to be produced in Braille and other accessible formats without first having to obtain the permission of the copyright holder. This authority, known as the Chafee Amendment, has been the law for the past seventeen years, and it has worked well--very well--and the United States is not the only nation that has a copyright exception for the blind.

Today fifty-seven nations around the world have copyright laws similar to our Chafee Amendment. The book treaty for the blind will expand this authority. As each WIPO member nation ratifies the book treaty for the blind, it agrees to change its national copyright law to permit books to be produced in accessible formats without having to seek the prior permission of the copyright holder. This will greatly increase the production of accessible works around the world. But producing more books is only the first step in ending what many have called the book famine. The second major provision contained in the treaty is the authority for nations to share accessible books across national borders.

Before the book treaty for the blind, countries could not share books with blind people living in other countries. That meant that, if a popular book were published such as a new Harry Potter book, the United States had to record it for the use of its blind citizens and only its citizens, and every other English-speaking country that wanted the book had to record it over again—the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and so on. You may be surprised to learn that no fewer than sixty nations around the world have English as their official language—sixty countries, all recording Harry Potter books over and over again. And that is just Harry Potter. Think of 50 Shades of Gray. Now, that's a lot of embarrassed narrators. Not only did books have to be recorded over and over again in every English-speaking country, they also had to be produced in Braille, large print, and any other accessible format. What a waste. But all that will now change as a result of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled.

This has been a long process. For many years the National Federation of the Blind, together with the World Blind Union (WBU) and its member organizations, has been working with WIPO on the book treaty for the blind. There have been many heroes along the way, not the least of whom is our own Scott LaBarre. Scott's command of the highly technical provisions of the treaty together with his ability to articulate our position clearly and convincingly was critical throughout the treaty negotiations. In addition there are a number of individuals from the international community who stand out as deserving of public recognition and thanks.

First is Chris Friend from the United Kingdom. Chris, who chaired the WBU's Right-to-Read Campaign until his recent retirement, was an early leader in the treaty effort. Other important leaders included Dan Pescod, also from the United Kingdom, who is the vice chair of the Right-to-Read Campaign; Francisco Martínez Calvo from the National Organization of the Spanish Blind (ONCE); and Pablo Lecuona from Argentina. And then there is Maryanne Diamond of Australia. During the time Maryanne served as the president of the WBU, she made the book treaty for the blind an international priority and mobilized the blind of the world behind the effort. These individuals together with many others worked hard, and as a result of their efforts we now have an international treaty that does not just allow but encourages the production and cross-border sharing of accessible books.

It was always our intent that the book treaty for the blind respect the right holder's intellectual property. Our goal was neither to strengthen nor to weaken international copyright law. Nevertheless many right holders, including some patent right holders who produce no books at all, believed the treaty posed a threat to international intellectual property law. As a result they sought to include a number of provisions that would strengthen the protections of right holders. The problem was that these provisions would have made the book treaty for the blind so cumbersome and bureaucratic that it would have been entirely unworkable. Fortunately the right holders did not prevail, and we have a book treaty for the blind that achieves all that we could have hoped for.

After the diplomatic conference adopted the book treaty for the blind, each of WIPO's 186 member nations was invited to sign the treaty as an expression of the country's intent to seek its formal ratification. Thus far the support of the world community has been overwhelming. On the last day of the diplomatic conference, 51 WIPO member states (countries) signed the book treaty for the blind.

But why do blind people and others with print disabilities need a special treaty at all? Is it simply to cheer our otherwise desolate lives? Is it to give us a few more novels and magazines to help pass our lonely days? Or is there a more serious purpose? Of course there is. According to the World Health Organization, there are 285 million blind and low-vision people in the world, and of these 90 percent live in developing countries (World Health Organization Media Centre. (June 2012) Visual impairment and blindness. Fact Sheet No. 282. Retrieved from <>).

The most optimistic estimates project that today blind people have access to no more than 5 percent of books and other published works, and that is in the industrialized world. For the 90 percent of blind people living in developing nations, access to the written word is less than 1 percent. (World Blind Union, Right to Read Committee. (2011). Right-to-Read Campaign – fall 2011 update: Will the EU and USA join the rest of the world and finally agree [to] a binding book treaty for blind people this November? Retrieved from <>)

You can imagine the impact this has on education. We do not know the number of blind children in the world who have access to a good education--particularly the 90 percent living in developing nations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) does not report data disaggregated by disability type; nevertheless UNESCO reports that in developing countries 98 percent of children with disabilities do not attend school—98 percent! And, according to UNESCO, in developing nations 99 percent of girls with disabilities are illiterate (Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities Education Task Force.

(2012). Background Note for the Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities Task Force on the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Retrieved from <

What a waste of human potential. Access to literacy is not something that blind people should have to request—not a gift doled out according to the benevolence of others. It is a civil and human right, and it must be treated as a right.

It is time to demand that we be taken seriously. As long as society believes that blind children cannot learn, accessible books remain an act of charity. As long as society believes that blind adults cannot work, nothing beyond kindness justifies the production of books in Braille and other special formats. As long as society believes that blind seniors are doomed to live out their lives in institutions or in the care of their families, accessible books are nothing more than a palliative to ease their suffering.

But blind children can learn, and blind adults can work, and blind seniors can continue to live full, active, productive lives. But, to do so, we must have the same opportunities as others, and that means we must have access to the written word—not just to a few of the books available to others but full and equal access.

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled is a monumental step toward full and equal opportunity, but it is only a step. Now we must work on its implementation. We must put our full and concerted effort into urging the president and the United States Senate to ratify the treaty and to do so without delay. Blind children cannot wait; blind adults cannot wait; blind seniors cannot wait; justice cannot wait. We, the National Federation of the Blind, we the collective voice of the nation's blind, we who believe in blind people, will wait no longer. The treaty must be ratified.

As we have done throughout our seventy-three-year history, we will continue to press for equality—for full and equal access until the day comes when all blind people are able to live as others, able to learn and work as others, able to live as fully integrated, productive, active members of society. That is what we have always done, and that is what we will continue to do. It is who and what we are; we are the National Federation of the Blind.

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