Update (May 14, 2018): The Marrakesh Treaty has been ratified by 36 countries. In the United States, the Marrakesh Treaty bill (S. 2559), expanding access to copyrighted works for blind and visually disabled persons, will be taken up by the Senate in mid-May and is considered likely to pass. It garnered bipartisan sponsorship on the Hill, and enjoys broad public support.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 253 million people live with vision impairment: 36 million are blind and another 217 million have moderately to severely reduced vision. In addition, there are millions of people with other kinds of print disability, such as dyslexic people and persons who are paralyzed and cannot manipulate a book or an e-book.
They all suffer from what is known as the “book famine.” In developed countries, notes the World Blind Union, less than 10% of published works are made into accessible formats, while in developing countries the situation is even worse, because only 1% of books are ever made into accessible formats. This situation represents an enormous barrier to information, knowledge and education for blind and partially sighted people, especially students.
Marrakesh Treaty: A roadmap for equality
On July 18, 2016, American musician Stevie Wonder welcomed the entry into force of the Marrakesh Treaty with powerful words. “A treaty that promises to end the global book famine… A pact,” he said, “that means that the millions of people in the world who are blind or visually impaired will be able to read books in accessible formats in various regions where they did not previously have access, regardless of their financial means.”
“In an ideal world, all literary works would be available and discoverable to sighted and print disabled readers at the same time and price.” – José Borghino
To address this challenge, the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, was adopted in 2013 under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and entered into force in 2016. The treaty was conceived to foster and ease the production and transfer of accessible books, including across national boundaries. To achieve these goals, it established a set of limitations and exceptions to copyright, mandatory for ratifying countries, for the benefit of the blind, visually impaired and otherwise print disabled. So far, 91 countries have signed the treaty and 33 of them have ratified it.
The practical side of accessible books
But is the Marrakesh Treaty enough in and of itself to solve the problem? Everyone involved seems to agree that it is not. The treaty itself, in its recitals, acknowledges that other mechanisms are needed to fight the book famine. Along with technological solutions, what is crucial to provide equal access to books is to promote accessible publishing, or the design and production of books in accessible formats from their conception.
Promoting the production of “born accessible” publications that can be fully accessed by all readers is one of the missions of the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), a private-public partnership created in 2014 that aims to implement the objectives of the Marrakesh Treaty at a practical level. Led by WIPO, the Accessible Books Consortium includes in its board organizations representing globally authors, publishers, libraries, blind people and others.
ABC has published a number of practical tools to advance accessible publishing, including a Books for All starter kit and a set of detailed Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers. They also present an annual award to recognize leadership and achievements in advancing the accessibility of digital publications. In a recent interview, one of the winners of the 2017 award, Huw Alexander, Digital Sales Manager at SAGE Publishing, stated that “inclusive publishing encourages innovation and community. More simply, accessibility makes reading better.”
Connecting blind and the visually impaired readers with books
The Accessible Books Consortium also runs an ambitious Global Book Service: an online catalogue where libraries for the blind and organizations serving people who are print disabled can easily obtain the content they need. Joined so far by 25 libraries for the blind, it currently contains over 360,000 titles in 76 languages, and 165,000 loans have been made to blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled individuals.
“In an ideal world, all literary works would be available and discoverable to sighted and print disabled readers at the same time and price,” according to José Borghino, the Secretary General of the International Publishers Association, an organization that sits on the board of the ABC Consortium. “Thanks to great strides in collaboration among all in the information chain, from author to reader, and thanks to advances in technology, this may become reality sooner than some may imagine.”