by Paul Edwards
I spent a fair amount of my life outside of the United States, first in Canada and then in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Canada has a pretty well-developed library system for people who are blind, though recent developments have arguably been steps backward rather than forward. In Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, the situation is quite different. When I was there, the only real libraries were at the schools for the blind, and they were very limited and tended to be static. There were few new books and many of the braille books that were available were subject to attack by termites, which made reading impossible. One could occasionally get hold of “talking books” produced in the United Kingdom, but you had to have a special player that could handle the rather strange cartridges that were used. For many blind readers in the Caribbean, old braille magazines were circulated as manna from heaven, and there was virtually no access to the literature of the islands, which was just not being produced locally in accessible formats. Governments there and elsewhere throughout the developing world were far more concerned about finding funds for the education of populations without disabilities, and so what money there was for people who are blind tended to be raised from the private sector as charitable donations. This is a far cry from our situation in the United States, where we have access to more books than we can ever read in more formats than we can ever use supported by substantial government expenditure.
The stark reality for blind people in countries beyond the developed world is that they represent the group that is the most illiterate because there are simply not enough resources available to deal with a problem that is as intractable as it is unforgivable. Hard-copy braille is hugely expensive to produce, and a library system in poor countries requires an infrastructure that is just plain unlikely to be affordable. Even if money was no object, the issue of copyright prevented the production of books in accessible formats. In this country we have a law which clearly allows designated groups to produce books in alternative formats regardless of their copyright status. In other parts of the world such permission didn’t exist. A publisher had to give permission for each book that was going to be made available and, for reasons that go beyond this article, publishers were not often prepared to give such permissions. So, for the vast majority of people who were blind in the world, literacy, libraries and independent and private access to either were a distant dream!
Then two things happened over the last decade which promised to make a huge difference. Under the impetus of the World Blind Union and with huge involvement of the American Council of the Blind, efforts were begun to develop an international treaty that would create a worldwide framework that would not only deal with the thorny issue of copyright permissions but would also aim to create a huge reservoir of books that would be sharable among the signatories of the document. This, of course, is the Marrakesh Treaty, which the United States became the 50th signatory of last year. The treaty took effect when 20 countries had ratified it. So one huge barrier to literacy for people who are blind around the world has been effectively removed. There are still lots of countries that have not signed on to Marrakesh, but that may change. At the very least we have created an environment where the free exchange of specialized materials for people who are blind won’t be impeded by publishers and permissions. This is a huge step forward.
Around the same time, a consortium of organizations from the developed world entered into an agreement to work to develop a whole new technology for braille displays. The Transforming Braille Group LLC (TBG) was formed with the express purpose of seeing whether a new and relatively inexpensive braille display could be created which, as their web site says, could bridge the gap between people in developing countries, available electronic files and a device they could afford. This group actually put up money to encourage proposals from various manufacturers, to evaluate those proposals and then to fund the development of an actual device which could then be made available for purchase. The result of their efforts was the Orbit 20 Reader, which was launched in 2016 and was initially sold in this country to individuals for under $500. It would seem that nirvana was close. Impediments to the spread of books had been removed by a treaty, and a device that could read braille electronically was now available for a cost that was less than that of producing five copies of a hard-copy braille book. It’s important to also note that the Orbit allowed for rudimentary note-taking, could be connected to a computer as a braille display and could interface with smartphones so that features like email, web browsing and book reading through the phone were open to users of the Orbit. The technology used in the device could be easily repaired, and the cost of repair was light years cheaper than that of earlier displays.
Among other jobs, I am the immediate past editor of “The LUA Ledger,” the magazine produced by Library Users of America. That journal has published articles about both Marrakesh and the Orbit Reader. As a result of those publications, I recently received a call from a gentleman who is blind, is a professor at a university in Missouri and who was interested in knowing whether LUA had any knowledge of how a library could be set up in a country like Nigeria, where he was born. Our conversation made it clear that, in spite of all the progress that has been made, we are far from the point where much change is likely that will turn the twin miracles of Marrakesh and the Orbit into substantial progress toward the literacy of people who are blind around the world. He made it clear that governments are not likely to put money into such a project. He also made it clear that many of the people who are blind in the developing world are in rural areas, are not well treated by those around them, and do not, for the most part, have access to an infrastructure that will allow for the creation of education, literacy and technological solutions to the problem. So, where are we, then? Are we at a place of hope or despair?
Let us begin with some hopeful developments. Even before the Marrakesh Treaty was fully implemented, a group called the Accessible Book Consortium (ABC) was formed, which began to catalog and identify books that could potentially be shared. There were already over 600,000 titles in their database by July of 2019. That catalog is known as TIGAR (Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources), and that brings us to a major obstacle. Marrakesh does not just give individuals around the world access to books. It requires each country to identify organizations which will distribute books legally. These are known as “authorized entities,” and there will need to be resources to set up these groups, staff them and buy the equipment that will be needed to set up the infrastructure in each country.
Fred Schroeder is the current president of the World Blind Union, and he was present at the ACB convention in July. He made it clear that, while libraries are crucial, the real impact of both Marrakesh and the Orbit Reader and other inexpensive displays must be in education. We have to find a way to make a difference for children who are blind around the world who remain illiterate and uneducated. How does the world turn these positive developments into real change in the literacy of people who are blind? This remains perhaps the greatest imponderable facing people who are blind throughout the world.
It is clear to me that we must find ways to move forward. I think that there are three approaches that need to be considered. First, huge private companies like Microsoft and Google are already spending lots of money to create Internet infrastructure and literacy throughout the world. We must be sure that they know about the potential for change that exists for people who are blind in developing countries and that we do all we can to persuade them that the most illiterate population in the world deserves urgent funding. Second, it seems to me that organizations like UNICEF and other United Nations bodies interested in implementing worldwide disability policy ought to step forward and champion the potential to revolutionize literacy for people who are blind around the world. Third, organizations involved with the World Blind Union need to continue to build the infrastructure that will allow change to happen. They must also work to create proposals and public relations documents that can influence developing countries to take this problem seriously and that can help organizations in these countries learn to sell change to their governments.
In this country we have access to immense resources for the education and literacy of people who are blind. All our consumer organizations and our four “trusted entities” must make it our business to be at the forefront of promoting ways forward that will make the intersection of technology and the law fundamentally alter the seemingly intractable problem of illiteracy among people who are blind around the world. This opportunity to make a difference is too important to be allowed to fail. We have the tools that can substantially alter the literacy of people who are blind around the world. Organizations of and for people who are blind have shown that we have the power to create a legal and technological intersection that offers immense hope. We must not squander this hope by failing to use the strength and capacity for change we have already demonstrated! Let us all commit to doing all we can to eliminate the scourge of illiteracy among people who are blind around the world!