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The print-impaired millions and their right to read

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 02, 2011 01:10 PM
Books, books everywhere, but not a word to read. This is the scenario for the approximately 70 million print-impaired in India, a sizeable population that includes the visually-impaired young people as well the elderly — whose vision depletes with advancing age.

If you are visually impaired and want to read the latest bestseller, the chances are that you would be staring at a blank, almost-impenetrable wall. The reason: hardly about 500 to 700 of the approximately one lakh titles that are published in India every year are converted to formats like Braille, audio books and e-books for the benefit of this population, as well as versions with large prints for those with weak vision.

Now, as the Budget Session of parliament is likely to consider amendments to the Copyright Act, those advocating a ‘right to read’ for the print-impaired are hoping that among the changes would be a permission to convert books to various accessible formats like Bookshare or Daisy Book Forum for this population that want to travel into the magic world of words but are forced to be out of it.

A National Right to Read Campaign, backed by the Global Right to Read Campaign (GRRC), is already on the job, creating public awareness against what activists call the ‘exclusion’ of millions of Indians from the ‘fundamental right’ to read books.

While there are technologies and software that have enabled this population to access print materials in electronic formats that are read aloud by the machine, it is still illegal for the print-impaired people to, say, scan a book and read it using a screen reader software (such as Adobe Read Aloud) or share it with others. The matters are complicated even more by lack of international laws that allow cross-border sharing of accessible-format books between libraries in India and other countries.

“Even though the International Publishers Association is looking for a licensing system, specifically for conversion of books to accessible formats for the visually impaired, publishers are not publishing in these versions,” says Chris Friend, chair of the GRRC and World Blind Union (WBU) representative.

However, 600 authors — including Arun Shourie, Tarun Tejpal, Meghnad Desai and Girish Karnad — and publishing houses like Harper Collins, Marg Publications, etc have pledged support to the campaign.

Persons who cannot read print are not only the blind, as is the popular perception. A print impaired person can be either visually impaired or those who have other physical, cognitive or sensory disabilities such as dyslexia, autism, learning disabilities, etc, point out Sam Taraporevala and Nirmita Narasimhan of the Centre for Internet and Society, which is spearheading the Right to Read Campaign along with the Daisy Forum.

Dismal scene

In developed countries, according to WBU estimates, only about five per cent of published books are available to print-impaired persons. In developing countries like India, the percentage is reduced to a dismal 0.5 per cent. There is increasing global attention on the issue in the form of a Treaty for the Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled Persons, which is being discussed at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) of the UN, and for which India has expressed its support.

Disabled rights activists like Javed Abidi are for faster availability of books in other formats, and say that it’s a ‘matter of shame’ that it has not been the norm despite India moving fast along the information highway.

Publishers like Cambridge University Press and Sage, while joining the movement for making books accessible for the print impaired, are a little apprehensive about the potential of abuse of the converted formats by book pirates as well as violation of rights of authors, whose permissions are necessary to convert any book to another format under the law.

“Publishers fear leakage of accessible formats into the open market,” says Manas Saikia of CUP. Something that Friend completely pooh poohs. “It’s a myth that we visually impaired are going to rob authors’ rights or leak the books into the open market. The Daisy format watermarks every converted production, and any leakage can be traced back to the source. Also, some publishers are opposing the WBU treaty at WIPO saying we want free books. That is another myth. We are ready to pay, just give us books to read,” he says.

But the debate in public space seems to be creating some impact. Even as publishers and authors are coming out in large numbers to support access of books to the print impaired, the human resource development ministry is working on providing an exception for conversion to various formats if it is for the print impaired.

In fact, G R Raghavendra, registrar for copyrights at the ministry, confirms that such a move is afoot to remove this ‘unfortunate’ lacuna in the law. Quite naturally, everyone who loves the printed word is hoping that the print-impaired book worms will sooner than latter witness sunnier days.

For the original article in the Deccan Herald

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