By Utpal Borpujari
Books, books everywhere, but not a word to read. This is the almost 100 per cent 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. Practically, 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 against hope 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, 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.
Going by the response, it seems the world of letters is slowly but surely waking up to the need to make books accessible to the print impaired, but what according to those fighting for this basic right to the print impaired, the most important thing is a change in law expressly permitting conversion to accessible formats. 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, if one goes strictly by law, it is still illegal for 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.
“It’s literary exclusion of millions, and 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 Global Right to Read Campaign and World Blind Union representative. This, despite the fact that about 600 authors, including Arun Shourie, Tarun Tejpal Meghnad Desai, Girish Karnad, Chetan Bhagat, Dilip D’Souza, Jean Dreze, Sai Paranjpye and Vikram Chandra, and publishing houses like Harper Collins, Marg Publications, Popular Prakashan, Sage Publications and Cambridge University Press, have pledged support to the campaign, which saw a passionate session at the ongoing 19 New Delhi World Book Fair after similar advocacy meets in Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai.
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 of India. “That is why books need to be converted to various alternate formats like Braille, audio, large print and so on,” says Friend. Users of these formats use assistive technologies like screen readers – or talking software as they are know – to access the information. In developed countries, according to World Blind Union 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. “This and the fact that the government is also in the process of amending its Copyright Act makes it a very crucial moment to understand the implications on the lives of all the millions who will benefit from books being converted to accessible formats,” says Narasimhan.
Disabled rights activists like Javed Abidi are for faster availability of books in such formats, and say that it’s a “matter of shame” that that 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 for 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 inot the open market, and it is up to the visually disabled to ensure that that does not happen,” 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 larger 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.