12 July 2013

Africa: Treaty Eases Access to Books for the Visually Impaired

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
A young woman disabled by polio, her t-shirt reads: 'Disability is NOT inability'. Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Marrakesh — An international treaty that ensures that visually impaired people will have easier access to books has been unanimously adopted by member states of the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The treaty was approved by representatives from WIPO's 186 member states at a conference held in Marrakesh, Morocco, last month (17-28 June), and they expect it to enter into force in around three months.

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled aims to improve access to published works for the more than 300 million blind and visually impaired people around the world by overcoming copyright restrictions.

Fewer than 60 countries currently have copyright laws that make special provisions for such things as Braille, large print or audio versions of texts.

According to Article 3, the treaty includes every individual "who is blind, has a visual impairment or a perceptual or reading disability or is unable, through physical disability, to hold or manipulate a book or to focus or move the eyes to the extent that would be normally acceptable for reading". The WHO says that 90 per cent of visually impaired people live in developing countries.

Mustapha Khalfi, Morocco's communication minister, tells SciDev.Net that the treaty guarantees the right to reproduce, distribute and translate works without obtaining a licence from the author. He says the treaty marks a new phase of limitations and exceptions to intellectual property rights and copyright laws that will hugely benefit visually impaired people.

"Less than five per cent of the nearly one million books published worldwide [each year] are made available [in formats accessible] to visually impaired persons," he says.

WIPO director-general Francis Gurry says: "The biggest challenge is in setting up a system that ensures easy access and exchange of publications, while providing publishers and authors with guarantees that the system will not subject their work to illegal exploitation".

During the conference's closing session, Marianne Diamond, president of the World Blind Union, which represents the world's blind and partially sighted people, heralded the treaty as a "historic event for blind persons".

Jayed weld Abdin, a representative of Yemen's Ministry of Culture, said this is primarily a humanitarian treaty that "is not merely a means of ensuring the right of blind persons to access knowledge and learning, but also contributes indirectly to the fight against poverty and the creation of dignified living conditions".

Fatima Al-Zahra Taifor, a visually impaired professor and trainer at the Training Centre for Primary Education Teachers in Meknes, Morocco, said: "The treaty is a step towards freedom and independence with regards to accessing ... books in a way that will help us read without relying on others".

Link to treaty

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