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net.wars: Three blind governments

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 May 2009


I spent my formative adult years as a musician. And even so, if I were forced to choose to sacrifice one of my senses as a practical matter pick sight over hearing: as awful and isolating as it would be to be deaf, for me it would be far, far worse to be blind.

Wendy M Grossman

Lack of access to information and therefore both employment and entertainment is the key reason. How can anyone participate in the "knowledge economy" if they can't read?

Years ago, when I was writing a piece about disabled access to the Net, the Royal National Institute for the Blind put me in touch with Peter Brasher, a consultant who was particularly articulate on the subject of disabled access to computing.

People tend to make the assumption – as I did – that the existence of Braille editions and talking books meant that blind and partially sighted people were catered for reasonably well. In fact, he said, only 8 percent of the blind population can read Braille; its use is generally confined to those who are blind from childhood (although see here for a counterexample).

But by far and away the majority of vision loss comes later in life. It's entirely possible that the percentage of Braille readers is now considerably less; today's kids are more likely to be taught to rely on technology - text-to-speech readers, audio books, and so on. From 50 percent in the 1950s, the percentage of blind American children learning Braille has dropped to 10 percent.

There's a lot of concern about this which can be summed up by this question: if text-to-speech technology and audio books are so great, why aren't sighted kids told to use them instead of bothering to learn to read?

But the bigger issue Brasher raised was one of independence. Typically, he said, the availability of books in Braille depends on someone with an agenda, often a church. The result for an inquisitive reader is a constant sense of limits. Then computers arrived, and it became possible to read anything you wanted of your own choice. And then graphical interfaces arrived and threatened to take it all away again; I wrote here about what it's like to surf the Web using the leading text-to-speech reader, JAWS. It's deeply unpleasant, difficult, tiring, and time-consuming.

When we talk about people with limited ability to access books – blind, partially sighted; in other cases fully sighted but physically disabled – we are talking about an already deeply marginalized and under-served population. Some of the links above cite studies that show that unemployment among the Braille-reading blind population is 44 percent – and 77 percent among blind non-Braille readers. Others make the point that inability to access printed information interferes with every aspect of education and employment.

 And this is the group that this week's meeting of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights at the World Intellectual Property Office has convened to consider. Should there be a blanket exception to allow the production of alternative formats of books for the visually impaired and disabled?

The proposal, introduced by Brazil, Paraguay, and Ecuador, seems simple enough, and the cause unarguable. The World Blind Union estimates that 95 percent of books never become available in alternative formats and when they do it's after some delay. As Brasher said nearly 15 years ago, such arrangements depend on the agendas of charitable organisations.

The culprit (as in so many net.wars reports) is copyright law. The WBU published arguments for copyright reform (DOC) in 2004. Amazon's Kindle is a perfect example of the problem: bowing to the demands of publishers, text-to-speech can be – and is being – turned off in the Kindle. The Kindle – any ebook reader with speech capabilities – ought to have been a huge step forward for disabled access to books.

And now, according to Twits present, at WIPO, the US, Canada, and the EU are arguing against the idea of this exemption. (They're not the only ones; elsewhere, the Authors Guild has argued that exemptions should be granted by special licence and registration, something I'd certainly be unhappy about if I were blind.)

Governments, particularly democratic ones, are supposed to be about ensuring equal opportunities for all. They are supposed to be about ensuring fair play. What about the American Disabilities Act, the EU's charter of fundamental human rights, and Canada's human rights act? Can any of these countries seriously argue that the rights of publishers and copyright holders trump the needs of a seriously disadvantaged group of people that every single one of us is at risk of joining?

While it's clear that text-to-speech and audio books don't solve every problem, and while the US is correct to argue that copyright is only one of a number of problems confronting the blind, when the WBU argues that copyright poses a significant barrier to access shouldn't everyone listen? Or are publishers confused by the stereotypical image of the pirate with the patch over one eye?

If governments and rightsholders want us to listen to them about other aspects of copyright law, they need to be on the right side of this issue.

Maybe they should listen to their own marketing departments about the way it looks when rich folks kick people who are already disadvantaged – and then charge for the privilege.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).