Plenary Talk at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Blind UnionAccess to published information is an essential requirement for education, employment and full social inclusion. People with vision impairments and other print disabilities deserve equal access to that treasure of information. These are exciting times for everyone who’s been working to meet the accessibility imperative, as we are witnessing global movements that will increase accessible publishing and create new and better opportunities for people with disabilities. This last November, I had the honor of giving a plenary talk at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Blind Union (WBU), in which I addressed these opportunities and the challenges ahead.
WBU is the global organization representing the estimated 285 million people worldwide with vision impairments. The organization’s priorities are decided upon at the WBU General Assembly, which is held every four years. The November 2012 General Assembly took place in Bangkok, Thailand. Under the theme “Achieving Our Vision through Empowerment and Partnerships,” this was the first-ever combined General Assembly of both WBU and the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), another world-class organization in the field. I was delighted to speak at the November 15th joint plenary session on “The Right to Read” campaign to achieve a world where published books are accessible and available to all individuals who are blind or have other disabilities.
In my talk, I highlighted three global movements towards increasing accessible publishing. The first is the shift to electronic distribution of published materials. The world has finally moved beyond just electronically creating books that are then distributed as ordinary print books to actually delivering digital ebooks. This shift is already happening in major markets: Amazon.com now sells more digital books than print books. This change creates an incredible opportunity that will affect the entire world, making access an affordable reality as more and more people have a device in their pocket that is capable of being an accessible e-reader: from inexpensive mobile phones and MP3 players to braille notetakers that can store thousands of ebooks in digital braille.
The second movement is the alignment of accessible disability formats with mainstream digital formats. Pioneers like George Kerscher and the DAISY Consortium have worked tirelessly to ensure that the standard format for talking books for people with visual impairments has become the primary commercial ebook standard. In technical terms, this means that the next version of the DAISY format, version 4, will be the same as EPUB3, the main format used by commercial publishers of ebooks. This has the potential to make standard electronic books work equally well for people with print disabilities as they do for people without disabilities. Furthermore, organizations serving people with disabilities are increasingly working together and with publishers to provide increased access.
The third movement is the effort to make copyright exceptions a global norm, thus enabling easy import and export of accessible materials. A copyright exception allows specialist organizations (generally a government agency or disability NGO or library) to make an accessible version of a published book without having to get permission from the author or publisher. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland is currently debating a global treaty to help the blind. I was honored to be part of a WBU-convened expert team that authored the original draft of the treaty. You can read about the latest developments in the effort to make it legal for people with print disabilities to share books across borders in my recent blog post.
These three movements all bode well for improved access to books and other content, but there remain challenges before we can fully realize the vision of equality of access to information. One of the biggest issues is digital rights management. Publishers are worried about the ease of copying digital materials and many of them therefore use technical protection mechanisms to make it difficult to copy their ebooks. Unfortunately, these technical protection mechanisms can’t tell the difference between making an illegal copy to sell or give away for free on the Internet, on the one hand, and making a copy for using text-to-speech to speak the content aloud or creating large print or braille versions of the content, on the other hand. As a result, people with visual impairments – the most natural customers of digital ebooks – have been locked out of using them!
The good news is that users without disabilities generally hate these locks. They don’t like being told that the ebooks they purchase can only be read on certain devices or in certain software programs. My hope is that publishers will decide to take the locks off their ebooks, like the makers of digital software and of digital music. Some publishers already do this and they point out that their business is doing just fine. As a matter of fact, more and more of them are explicitly working to ensure that the ebooks they publish are accessible. Clearly, publishers and authors need to make fair compensation for creating books in the service of society. But it’s also clear that people with disabilities who can afford to do so should be able to buy accessible ebooks when they are available. True equality of access means the ability to buy ebooks like the general public and to be assured that assistive technology will work with those ebooks.
What can we do today to build that accessible future? National organizations of the blind, as well as WBU, need to keep the pressure on publishers to build accessibility into their products. This includes the kind of legal advocacy pursued by the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S., which has secured a series of legal victories. It includes pressuring national governments to enforce existing accessibility laws. It also includes passing a global treaty for people with print disabilities, creating a safety net for accessibility when the commercial publishers choose not to make their content accessible, and meeting the needs of people with disabilities who cannot afford to purchase content.
Benetech’s Bookshare is the world’s largest accessible online library dedicated to serving people with print disabilities. Today, Bookshare has more than 175,000 books available in the U.S. thanks to our domestic copyright exception. Unfortunately, we can’t export these books, as other countries have copyright laws that we wouldn’t violate. It’s this kind of problem that the global treaty is designed to solve.
But we can’t stand by and wait until the treaty is passed and ratified and then until countries change their national laws: that could take years. We’re therefore working with the publishing industry to bridge the gap. We’re dedicated both to helping the commercial publishing industry create accessible content and distribute that as their primary product. That is, we want the ebooks that are purchased by the general public to be fully accessible. We call our dream “ensuring that content that is born digital is born accessible!”
As a library, we’re also dedicated to providing the abovementioned safety net – today and in the future. Our work continues to provide people with print disabilities access to books and other materials. More and more of our publishing partners are providing worldwide rights to their titles and expanding opportunity beyond the U.S., so that we now offer over 80,000 titles of the total Bookshare collection in most countries.
As the entire industry is changing the ways in which content is produced, we’ve expanded our focus to providing free tools to publishers to ensure that all new content that is born digital is born accessible. Funders like the U.S. Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have supported Benetech – both by itself and in partnership with other accessibility groups such as the DAISY Consortium and WGBH of Boston – to work with standards bodies, technology companies, authors and publishers in order to make those tools widely and freely available and see that they are built into mainstream products and standards.
There is much more work to be done to ensure accessibility of all content, including math, images and other media. But this is a critical and hopeful moment where technology and massive industry shifts make it possible to end the constant catch-up effort that limits access and dominates the day-to-day life of so many consumers and professionals. If all born-digital content is born accessible, we will have realized our shared dream of equal access to information for all people with print disabilities!