Perspective: End the ‘book famine’ with better technology, attitudes and copyright law

By Kartik Sawhney

Visually impaired people face what at least one writer has called a ‘book famine’. This is not news to us: The visually challenged and print-impaired have been struggling for accessibility for a long time. ‘Accessibility’ is an all-encompassing term that includes access to the physical environment, transportation, information and communication technology, education and other facilities. In my view, it is crucial that accessible material be readily available. The urgency is even greater when we consider the situation in developing nations.

When I conducted an informal survey of nearly 60 visually challenged students in primary and secondary grades in mainstream schools in India, I found that less than 20 per cent of them had access to material in their preferred format, and less than 35 per cent to material in any format. Being visually challenged, I’ve had several experiences where lack of accessibility has impeded me from availing myself of the same opportunities as others. The effort needed to make reading material accessible is monumental. Thanks to advances in optical character recognition (OCR) – a technology that converts printed, handwritten or typewritten text into machine-encoded text, making it possible for computerized voices to read the text aloud – there has been some improvement. However, technical content remains inaccessible. I spend around two hours a day typing out the printed material from my science and math classes, for example, because OCR software cannot read diagrams and special symbols with sufficient accuracy. The plight of rural students is even worse: They depend on humans to read volumes of information aloud to them. For instance, my friends in a small village have no option but to rely completely on volunteers who come by weekly.

Even much online content cannot be read by standard screen reading utilities, primarily as a result of the varying standards and platforms used by authors and designers. Although the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has produced guidelines for websites to follow in order to ensure a wonderful experience for all, this vision is far from achieved. I come across websites daily that are not W3C-standard compliant. This calls for greater scrutiny by not only governments, but also civil society, academia and international organizations. The Government of India has taken steps to bring about a positive change on this front; it now offers a National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in the category of ‘Best Accessible Website’. This incentive drives organizations to make their websites accessible. If applied by enough countries, such measures could usher in a revolution.

This is not just a matter for governments: Anyone can make a positive difference. I recall a historic achievement made in 2011 by a group of visually challenged youth in Bangalore, India. Preparing for the entrance exams to prestigious business schools in the country, they contacted the well-known educational publisher Pearson Education and requested that they publish their material in an accessible format. Pearson agreed and has since then made much of their material available for the visually challenged. However, not all publishers are as sensitive and understanding. Lack of awareness and insensitivity are two of the biggest challenges. Unless – until – there is a paradigm shift in attitudes towards people who are visually challenged, it will be difficult to overcome the challenges that plague the print-impaired community today.

But there is another barrier to access – a political and legal, not technical or attitudinal, one. Currently, only 57 countries have amended their copyright laws to provide concessions for people with visual impairments. Thus, providing e-books for the visually challenged is unfortunately still considered an infringement of copyright in many countries – and this prevents local publishers from helping out within the community. For a young student, these facts are extremely disturbing: Since most countries have pledged to provide maximum support and cooperation for the welfare and empowerment of persons with disabilities, there turns out to be a vast difference between the laws on paper and actual, real-world implementation. The need of the hour is to translate words into action. I suggest an international body to oversee implementation of international disability legislation, to the extent that it does not violate national sovereignty.

Copyright law must be amended. I hope that countries will continue to work on the legal framework, and that the United Nations will take action towards a referendum on this issue. With concerted effort, I believe we will secure this inalienable right for all people with disabilities, everywhere: the right to access all material!

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