A "book famine" or a "book apartheid": that's how South Africa's blind and visually impaired people refer to the situation that has left them able to read only 0.5% of books ever written.
The reason for the famine? Strict copyright laws, which prohibit accessible works – books, journals, movies, and the like – from being shared across borders. Current laws include an exception that allows for all texts to be translated for the visually impaired, but once made, these products cannot be shared from country to country. As such, most translated works reside in resource-rich countries, where there are more non-governmental organisations, charities and government departments to do the work. The situation is still grim though: in the United States 5% of all texts have been translated into accessible formats, compared with South Africa's dismal 0.5% figure. According to Jace Nair, the executive director of the South African National Council for the Blind, because of strict copyright laws, only 10% of all translated works ever make it to Africa.
Nair says that in the absence of accessible resources, South Africa's visually impaired face far fewer educational and employment opportunities and significantly higher illiteracy rates and dependency on social grants than their seeing counterparts. This puts them among the country's most economically and socially disadvantaged groups. Nearly 800000 South Africans are visually impaired.
Treaty gives hope
But there may be hope on the horizon, in the form of a new international treaty that would allow for cross-border sharing of materials that have been translated for the visually impaired.
"The whole point of this treaty is that if you create a copy of the work … you don't have to do it separately in each country," says Jamie Love, executive director of Knowledge Ecology International, an organisation pushing for the treaty. "You make one copy, and you share it across borders."
Advocates have great hope for the treaty. "Twenty years ago the book famine for reading-impaired people was driven by technological short-comings – all those technological obstacles are now gone," explains Marcus Low, who edits Equal Treatment and NSP Review, the magazines of the Treatment Action Campaign and Section27, and who is visually impaired. "This situation is unconscionable and can easily be solved with a strong treaty providing copyright exceptions for reading impaired people."
The treaty was originally conceived in the 1980s, and discussions took place at the World Health Organisation and World Intellectual Property Organisation. But the idea was adrift for years, with discussions only reigniting when Knowledge Ecology International joined forces with the World Blind Union in 2008 in an attempt to make something concrete. In 2009, Brazil tabled a proposal at the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The treaty is meant to be discussed this June at a meeting in Marrakech and advocates hope to have something finalised by the end of this year.
Love says he saw the need for action while touring Latin America. "It was a ridiculous situation. What blind people have access to depends entirely on the country in which they live. Uruguay had 3000 books on tape for the whole country, whereas Argentina, just across the border, had hundreds of thousands – but they couldn't share because of copyright laws."
Love says not only would a treaty help make works more accessible, but free sharing of translated works would also significantly reduce costs, because individual countries would no longer have to produce their own versions. "This could radically improve the lives of people with disabilities, and it doesn't cost any money."
The binding nature of a treaty will lead to concrete laws and policies, says Love, who explains that for decades several "model laws" on copyright exceptions for disabled people have been suggested by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and Unesco but never implemented.
"It is very difficult for blind groups to petition a country to change its copyright law on the basis of some model law or nonbinding recommendation," he says. A treaty would give momentum to efforts to create both the national exceptions and the cross-border system of exchanging files, and would have "more power and meaning", says Love.
Support from other countries
The idea has received support from many developing countries, with Latin American and African countries at the fore, but the US and The European Union have pushed back because, Love says, they are concerned that allowing for copyright exceptions in the case of visually impaired people will set a precedent for other exceptions. The European Commission passed a resolution in 2012 calling on the EU to enter into negotiations on a treaty, but advocates contend it is still dragging its feet.
Lobbying from the publishing sector has made the EU countries, home to the biggest publishing houses worldwide, nervous about giving outward support: at a meeting in February last year, 25 lobbyists from the film and publishing industry pushed hard for a "three-step test" to be passed, demonstrating that each individual case is exceptional before copyright flexibility is granted.
Pro-treaty advocates see this as onerous given the intense need. MacDonald Netshitenzhe, director of commercial law and policy at the department of trade and industry, says that South Africa and other African countries are pushing for the treaty to be even broader, to include copyright exceptions for all people with learning disabilities. "We would like to see a comprehensive treaty that covers … people who are disabled as far as difficulty with learning … instead of just singling out one sector in the group," he says.
Netshitenzhe expects that the Africa Group will push the "issue of the wider society in that area, not just for the visually impaired" at the upcoming Marrakech conference.
Nair says that South Africa's support of the treaty is just one step the country needs to take to include visually impaired and other disabled people within the wider society. South Africa must amend its copyright laws, which Nair calls "outdated" (they were written in 1978), government information must be translated into accessible formats and multiple languages – currently, works that are available in South Africa can only be found in English and sometimes Afrikaans – and libraries and schools must include accessible formats for their learners.
"As long as blind and partially sighted people are limited in accessing knowledge, they will remain marginalised and part of the poorest of the poor," says Nair. "It's time for service delivery. Government needs to start putting resources [in place] to meet the obligations of the United Nations convention [on the rights of persons with disabilities]."
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist at the M&G Health Journalism Centre. Her stories are produced with the support of the Open Society Foundations but are editorially independent of any sponsorship
This story was produced with the support of the Open Society Foundation