The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______        October 1997

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Senator John Chafee
PHOTO/CAPTION: Senator John H. Chafee

 

American Library Association Honors Senator John Chafee

From the Editor: On Monday, June 30, 1997, the American Library Association presented its Francis Joseph Campbell Award for distinguished service to blind and physically handicapped library patrons to Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island. This award was instituted in 1966, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was its second recipient. Senator Chafee was unable to be present for the award ceremony in San Francisco, but he addressed the ALA convention audience by videotape. This is what he said:

I am delighted to receive the American Library Association's Francis Joseph Campbell Award, and I want to thank you very much for it. This is a tremendous honor, and I regret that I can't be there with you personally this evening. Standing for me to receive this wonderful award is Barbara Weaver. She's the director of the Department of Library Services in my home state of Rhode Island. Barbara's department has special meaning for me because I established that department during the time that I was governor. I know you're in good hands with Barbara.

Last year I was delighted to lead the effort to amend the Copyright Act so that copies of published works could be made into Braille or special recorded format for exclusive use by blind individuals without delay--that's a key thing, without delay. Neal Kelly from the Illinois State Libraries asked me to spend a few moments this evening describing to you how I became interested in this matter.

It is really quite a simple story, and it does illustrate the important role that you as constituents can play in the legislative process. Every February, year after year, Ed Beck, a blind senior citizen and longtime friend of mine from Rhode Island, comes to Washington for the legislative meeting of the National Federation of the Blind. As part of his trip he visits my office as he does the offices of other members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation. He always has a list of the Federation's legislative priorities, and he spends the time with me or with my staff discussing these priorities. In 1996 Ed had on his list the need to amend the Copyright Act in order to reflect an agreement that had been worked out by individuals representing the blind on one hand and the publishers on the other.

I learned from Ed and from others who rely on recorded books that it often took the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, more than a year just to get permission to begin producing recorded or Braille copies of books and other published works. I also learned that the Library didn't pursue permission to reproduce publications that needed the approval of a whole group of copyright holders such as anthologies of poetry or collections of essays or short stories. This means that, at best, blind individuals across the country didn't have access to current publications (at least they were delayed) and, at worst, the law was effectively censoring reading material for blind people.

Now how did this happen? As many of you know, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was created by an act of Congress many years ago, in 1931. At that time government agencies and private entities were required to obtain permission from the holder of the copyright before they could produce copies in Braille or recorded format. Now why did this provision come about? It came about in order to protect the rights of the copyright holder by preventing pirating and other forms of copying. Since the enactment of the original law sixty-five years ago, there certainly hasn't been a rash of piracy caused by Braille and specially recorded books. So there's no need for this requirement to obtain permission from the holder of the copyright.

No one knows better than you that we are in the midst of an information revolution. Just in the past few years the ways in which we find information and the amount of time in which we expect to obtain it have changed dramatically. Yet for individuals who happen to be blind, access to immediate information was restricted by law. That seemed to me to be fundamentally unfair and counterproductive. Fortunately, Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes, representing the Association of American Publishers, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a past recipient of the Francis Joseph Campbell Award, representing the blind, were able to come to an agreement. Now this agreement worked out a system of amending the Copyright Act and still protecting the rights of copyright holders. They brought their proposal to Congress, and they did this by testifying before a House committee and through able messengers like Ed Beck as I previously mentioned.

In the end the House included the Veliotes-Jernigan agreement in a bill that was otherwise controversial for reasons unassociated with the Veliotes-Jernigan agreement. The Copyright Amendment pertaining to books for the blind had not yet been introduced in the Senate. I was surprised at that. I soon learned most of my Senate colleagues simply weren't aware of the problem. I found an ally in a new Senator from Kansas, Sheila Frahm. Sheila Frahm has a daughter who is blind, and she agreed to join with me in sponsoring the proposal. We sought out other Senators who eagerly joined us as cosponsors. For example, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose brother is blind, Mitch McConnell and Wendell Ford (both from Kentucky, home of the American Printing House for the Blind), and Larry Presler of South Dakota (a state with a surprisingly large number of blind individuals). We decided to attach our amendment to a legislative appropriations bill. Our amendment won unanimous approval in the Senate, was agreed to by the conference--that is the meeting between the House and the Senate--and was signed into law by the President on September 16, 1996, not quite a year ago. This took just two months from the time of introduction when I introduced it, to signing by the President. I doubt whether I will ever be able to match that speed record again.

I'm happy to say that this was the kind of proposal that everyone was in favor of, once they understood it. Now it's my hope that, as a result of its enactment, information is becoming more readily available to blind adults and children. Most of us take for granted our ability to browse through the neighborhood library or corner book store, searching for titles from the best seller list. For an estimated two million Americans who are blind or visually impaired, this sort of activity is impossible. For our nation's more than 54,000 blind elementary and secondary school students, there has been an even greater problem, which is this: maps and charts and graphs and illustrations that take up one page in a standard textbook require multiple pages in Braille or tactile graphics to convey the same information. All in all, it can take a full year to produce a Braille textbook. The added time consumed by printers' attempting to obtain permission from the publishers or authors made it certain that the blind student would not start school with the same textbooks as his or her sighted classmates. It is my sincere hope that my amendment has made a big improvement in the availability of up-to-date textbooks for students and information and just plain good books for blind people.

Thank you again for honoring me with this award. Francis Joseph Campbell devoted himself to improving the lives of other blind people by giving them the skills to become self-reliant. Hopefully my amendment is one more tool to be used in achieving this self-reliance. In closing I want to be sure to give special thanks to Dr. Jernigan and to Kurt Cylke, the Director of National Library Service, for nominating me for this important award. I'm deeply grateful, and I want to thank each and every one of you for this honor.