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Access to books for the blind needs to be improved

ht view Updated: Jun 26, 2014 21:13 IST
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Today, 134 years after her birth, Helen Keller still shines as model of what a literate mind can offer. Though deafblind, Keller graduated with honours from Radcliffe, wrote numerous books, travelled the world and fought for women’s and workers’ rights. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her dedication to the betterment of humanity.

Fate and circumstance opened her brilliant mind. Keller’s family had sufficient resources and connections to provide her the education and access to the printed word that she needed to excel. In today’s world, Keller would be hard pressed to get the books and information she thrived on because of international legal restrictions. Currently, intellectual property laws limit the transfer of accessible media across national borders, even for people who can only use audio or braille formats. This adversely affects roughly 285 million people who are blind, a number equivalent to the combined populations of Germany, France, the Philippines and Argentina. Imagine the benefits to the world if each of those individuals were better able to learn, work and contribute their full talents. Allowing books and other media to cross international borders in accessible formats unleashes human capital.

Last June, an international conference concluded the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled with the aim of freeing up international access to books for people who are blind. More than 70 countries signed the treaty orchestrated by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Now, 20 nations must ratify the treaty to realise its transformative promise. Keller’s birth anniversary today is an appropriate moment to urge worldwide adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty. India is poised to be the first, with the formal ratification expected to be submitted to the WIPO in a ceremony on June 30.

Sheer numbers provide strong incentive for countries to ratify the treaty. The World Blind Union reports that only 5% of the more than one million books published each year are available in formats accessible to people who are blind. Many publishers see the value in providing every book to every person at the same time and price. Ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty opens the door to that ultimate goal of putting all published materials into the hands of millions and enable them to meaningfully engage in society, politics, cultural events and the economy at large.

The treaty strictly preserves intellectual property principles. Recent measures provide increased protections against potential abuse. Practical mechanisms to certify user eligibility and other technical safeguards are provided through authorised entities such as government agencies and certified schools for the blind in each country.

As digital publishing zooms into the future, and all stakeholders increasingly work together to enable ebooks to give access to all readers regardless of abilities, this treaty nevertheless is a critical first step in maximising the creativity and productivity of people who are blind or have low vision. Lifting restrictions on intellectual property will serve to lessen social gaps and income disparity. Ratification, we believe, will activate an essential mechanism to empower people who are blind to join in the marketplace, lead more productive lives, and contribute to the wealth of their community and country.

World leaders must follow India’s lead and ratify the WIPO’s Marrakesh Treaty, a pivotal move towards handing hundreds of millions of people the keys that may unlock the next mind as brilliant as Helen Keller’s.

Access to the written word unleashes the best of human thought. Keller said, “…when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me.”

Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever, is founder of the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust. The views expressed by the author are personal.