Overcoming the ‘Book Famine’ in Pakistan: What is it?
The right to read is part of our basic human rights. Access to the written word is crucial to allow people to fully participate in society. It’s important for education, political involvement, success in the workplace, scientific progress, and, not least, creative play and leisure. Equal access to books and other cultural goods is also required by international law.
Whatever the misconceptions remain about the people with blindness, the fact of the matter is that they can prove to be a productive a part of society as any other person can be.
We live in a world where people with blindness and other print disabilities are unfortunately suffering from what is being called the “book famine”. The “famine” refers to the fact that about seven percent of published works, such as books and educational materials, in developed countries and less than 1% in developing countries are ever made into accessible formats, such as Braille, large print, or audio.
The Marrakesh Treaty is a step in the right direction to overcome the book famine. It allows accessible libraries to share their materials with other party organizations across states, which is essential for many developing countries like Pakistan, where organizations that serve the blind are often woefully under-resourced.
What the Statistics Say:
An estimated 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired and some 90% of those live in developing nations. In addition, there are millions of people with other kinds of print disabilities, such as dyslexic people and persons who are paralyzed and cannot handle a book or an e-book.
This lack of access to information and literature affects blind and print disabled people in a number of ways, including a lack of access to a full education and gainful employment. The situation also represents an enormous barrier to information, knowledge, and education for the blind and people with print disabilities, especially students.
The technology now exists to deliver books in accessible electronic forms to people much more cheaply than printing and shipping bulky braille copies or books on tape. Electronic books can be read with screen readers and refreshable braille devices, or printed into large print or braille if needed. Now that we have this technology, the global book famine is a preventable tragedy.
Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled:
To address the challenge of book famine, 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, over a hundred countries have signed the treaty and 44 countries plus the EU have ratified it. Pakistan is yet to join the treaty.
Part of the problem behind the book famine is money. Many print books are not available in digital form, and many digital books are locked down by technical restrictions – “Digital Rights Management” – intended to prevent unauthorized copying. Secondly, copyright law often requires institutions in each country to make their own accessible copies of the books. This sometimes results in organizations in many countries using resources to make the same books accessible. In a system that is already poorly funded, this creates massive waste and means that far fewer books are digitized.
The Marrakesh Treaty outlines concrete, practical steps for countries to follow in order to end the book famine. The Treaty sets the stage for a far more efficient, coordinated approach by ensuring that organizations who help visually impaired people around the world can cooperate, rather than duplicating their efforts to more easily reproduce works into accessible formats for non-profit distribution. At the same time, it also protects the rights of authors and publishers.
Making the Mark in Every Field:
In Pakistan, blind and visually impaired people are serving in almost every field ranging from academia to bureaucracy, research, judiciary, even law enforcement, etc. however, those who attain such positions against all odds, are very few fortunate ones. This means that given the right circumstances and opportunities, persons with blindness can contribute productively to society. To do so, blind people must have the same opportunities as others, and that means they must have access to the written word—not just to a few of the books available to others, but full and equal access.
Access to literacy is not something that blind people should have to request–it’s not a gift doled out according to the benevolence of others. It is a civil and human right and must be treated as such. In a perfect world, all printed material books, magazines newspapers etc. would be available and discoverable to sighted and print disabled readers at the same time and price.
With Pakistan becoming a party to Marrakesh Treaty and a slight change to copyright law, blind people in Pakistan could almost immediately have access to the accessible books that are at least available in developed countries (like the EU and the US). In this context, the first step towards overcoming the “book famine” for partially sighted and print disabled people in Pakistan that the government should take , is to sign and ratify the Marrakesh Treaty.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Muhammad Shabbir Awan is pursuing his Ph.D. in International Relations from National Defence University and works as a researcher.
Twitter: Muhammad Shabbir
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