Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Benetech's Statement to the Treaty Delegates in Marrakech

Benetech, my nonprofit organization operates Bookshare, the largest online library dedicated to serving blind and print disabled people. We have 197,000 books available in the United States today, and serve 250,000 people, mainly in the United States, but also in 40 other countries. Our library is made possible both by a domestic copyright exception that makes it possible for us to add any book requested by a blind person to our library, as well as strong cooperation with publishers who provide many of their books directly to our library for free, including the rights to serve people in certain other countries.

Our library is unusual, in that our charter is to serve all people with print disabilities of the world, not just those in our country. Our focus is on carefully vetting each person as having a qualified print disability through working with trustworthy institutions in our own and other countries, and then letting qualified users loose in a library without limits! And, just like libraries for sighted people, our books are available to our patrons even if they could purchase them. It wouldn’t be a library if most of the books on the shelves had little signs saying buy it, don’t borrow it!

At the core of our library is the electronic book, which can be easily converted into accessible formats for the blind, on computers, tablets, smartphones, electronic braille displays and simple phones and MP3 players, through Braille embossers and presses that create physical Braille books, and through creating large print. We seek to work with whatever device is in the possession of every disabled person, whatever is in their pocket or bag. The digital nature of our work makes it cost effective to serve many people without spending a royal treasury. We provide library services in rich countries for US$75 per year per person. In the developing world, we charge roughly US$10 per year, subsidizing this cost in solidarity. Our individual users get to choose their books directly online or in a smartphone application, and they typically read 10 books per year. That’s one dollar per book in the developing world. As you devise the treaty, please realize that any procedures that needlessly add costs to the inexpensive provision of accessible books will effectively result in denial of access. We don’t want procedures that make providing a book in a developing country to be more expensive than in our home country!

I have asked the Secretariat to arrange a time for delegates to come and see a demonstration of the current state of technology for a library for the blind: how the users download the books, and how they talk. That session is tentatively planned for Friday at 2 pm, in the same room where the publishers presented today during the lunch break.

We have the technology today to end the book famine: we need your treaty to make it real! We look forward to a simple, straightforward and usable treaty that makes it possible for American blind people to have access to the cultural richness of all other languages and countries and for us to serve all of our hundreds of thousands of books to the blind of the world. Help us see that people with disabilities get the access they need for education, employment and full social inclusion!

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