WIPO Visually Impaired Treaty: Voices From Africa On Dire Situation

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The World Intellectual Property Organization is on the verge of deciding on a high-level meeting paving the way for a new treaty to facilitate access to books to visually impaired people. Meanwhile, in Africa, far from plenary discussions, the situation on the ground reveals a dire need for change.

WIPO are expected to decide tomorrow on whether to proceed (IPW, WIPO, 16 December 2012).

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are visually impaired in the world, 39 million of which are blind, and about 90 percent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries. African visually impaired people suffer from chronic lack of access to books in accessible formats. On the eve of the General Assembly that could launch the process to alleviate the problem, the African Union for the Blind depicts a dire picture of the situation on the ground.

Africa pays high tribute to visual impairment and blindness with an estimated 5.8 million out of the world’s 38 million blind people, and 20.4 million visually impaired, according to statistics found on the Vision 2020, a global initiative for the elimination of avoidable blindness website.

Interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch, Peter Anomah-Kordieh, programme officer for disability rights and advocacy at the African Union of the Blind (AFUB), said the high prevalence of visually impaired and blind people in Africa is directly linked to poverty, the lack of healthcare to treat curable diseases preventing blindness or visual impairment.

“Some parents are poor, they have no money to go to the hospital to get a cure for their children,” he said, adding that poor sanitation conditions and lack of access to health, in particular in rural areas will continue to maintain a high prevalence of visual disability in Africa.

There is also a lack of awareness among parents of persons with visual impairment, he said, adding that the general public displays a lack of awareness, ignorance and poor attitude towards the needs of the visually impaired which are often viewed as secondary to those of the non-disabled population.

The lack of really reliable statistics on the number of visually impaired and blind people in Africa makes it very difficult for governments to plan for them, he said.

The AFUB is an umbrella organisation which does not deal directly with individuals but rather with member organisations, he said. “Our mission is ‘to strengthen member organizations and create unity of purpose among them, through capacity building and advocacy, in partnership with governments, international agencies and other stakeholders,’ as we envisage being ‘a continent where visually impaired persons enjoy equal rights, social inclusion and full participation in development.’”

Different Formats for Different Situations

Visually impaired and blind people need special formats of books, according to Anomah-Kordieh, and different formats are needed for different people and different situations.

“Me, for instance, I am visually impaired,” he said, ” I would prefer different formats, either soft copy of documents so that the software in my computer can read it for me, or an audio version that I can play from a CD and listen to get my information.” However, “when I relax, I prefer Braille.” Formats depend on who is going to use it, he said, so soft copies, audio version, Braille or large prints are needed.

(Note: in the current draft treaty text, the definition of works reads as: “means literary and artistic works within the meaning of Article 2.1 of the Berne Convention, in the form of text, notation and/or related illustrations, whether published or otherwise made publicly available in any media.” A footnote adds that “An Interpretative Understanding/Agreed Statement will be drafted to clarify that audiobooks are included in the definition of “work”. Audiovisual works are not included.)

In Africa, Anomah-Kordieh said, most people do not have access to information and communication technologies (ICT), so the favoured formats would be audio, Braille, or large print.

“We need to empower our members to know how to use ICT so that they can access that facility, and be less dependent on Braille,” he said. In most schools, there is no computer-equipped with software that a blind person can use, he said. In rural areas, Braille or audio versions would be preferable, but each format has a challenge associated with it, he said. Most blind people did not go to school and Braille is very difficult for them to read. Some people do not have electricity so Braille might be better in this case.

No Access for Visually Impaired

Access to accessible formats is very difficult in Africa, he said, especially in rural areas, “but even in cities you go to most libraries where they don’t have a single document in accessible format.”

“People even do not prefer to go to those libraries because there is nothing they can access,” he said. “If you go to a big internet cafe, none of the machines have a software that would help visually impaired persons, in libraries there is not a single document in Braille.”

He said that persons who are blind do not need any special computers to access information on the internet. They only need special access software like the popular ones such as ‘Job Access with Speech’ [JAWS] or Magnification in Colour (MAGIC) to perform their duties.

However, one cannot find these access-enabling adjustments to even a single computer in internet or cyber cafes. In Africa, learners who are blind mostly depend on other learners and sighted guides to survive through the education system.

“Most blind and visually impaired people depend on friends who will read documents to get information, just like I did when I was at university. That is how we try to survive in Africa,” he said. “Some people listen to the radio but since there are no academic books in accessible format, people record their lessons and come back and write as they listen.”

“These days, it is a good solution to empower yourself with ICT, as do most educated people in order to get information from the internet,” he said. At university, some people would record novels for the benefit of visually impaired people, for literature purposes, he said. Some charitable institutions try to scan documents and put them in soft copies so that they can make them available for students, he said.

“You cannot get to a charitable institution and ask for a book in Braille, it is just not there,” he said. “We are supposed to find books in national or private libraries but they are not there,” he repeated, wondering where charitable institutions were sending books. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where people with visually impairment and blind people live, most of them never having attended school.

“I have been in Africa since I was born, that is where I attended school, and I know how difficult it is to get documents in accessible format,” he said. People from Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, “they all complain that they do not have their documents in accessible format.”

“It is probable that I could not find a Braille copy of a book like Harry Potter in Africa,” he said.

“We are trying to advocate for the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and even that one we do not think will be implemented fully,” he said. “The African Union is also working on a disability protocol that will suit African needs.”

Commercial Availability Down to a Price Question

In Africa, most visually impaired and blind people are poor and cannot afford accessible format copies of books, according to Anomah-Kordieh . “If I cannot afford a book, I will not buy it at all, but if someone is sending it to me for free or for a much cheaper price, I think I would prefer that one,” he said.

Usually, accessible format of books for visually impaired and blind people are expensive, and more expensive than normal print copies on the market. Publishers say that translating the book in Braille is very expensive, the documents are also very big, he said.

“If nobody can afford to buy accessible format books, publishers won’t probably continue providing them,” he said.

He ended by saying that if African governments want to reduce or eradicate poverty, then they need to bring on board persons with disabilities by fully implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with specific reference to articles 9, 12, 21, 24, 27 and 28 on accessibility, equal recognition before the law, freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information, education, work and employment and adequate standards of living and social protection respectively.

AFUB is a registered international non-governmental organisation in Kenya and has consulate status with the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. AFUB also has observer status in the African Union (AU) and has a mandate to operate in all African Union member states through OAU resolution CM/Res.944 (XL), where it seeks to initiate, promote and sustain development programmes to uplift the standards of living of blind and partially sighted persons in Africa, he said. Currently AFUB has a membership of 57 organisations for and of the blind in 51 countries across Africa, he added.


Catherine Saez may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. says

    It is a misnomer to say that the WIPO SCCR/25/2 working text document is for ‘the visually impaired’. The definition of Beneficiary Persons at Article B is much broader than that.

    The USA Reading Rights Coalition states that they represent the “30 million Americans who cannot read print because of blindness, dyslexia, spinal cord injury, and other print disabilities” out of a total USA population of about 315 million.

    RNIB has said March 2012 in response to the UK IPO Copyright Consultation “RNIB therefore supports a broad definition along the lines of the Right to Read Alliance definition of print impairment, i.e. which covers the estimated one in eight of us who cannot read standard print due to sight problems, dyslexia, or a disability which makes it difficult for us to hold a book or turn a page.”


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