By Bizibrains Okpeh
Globally, there is less information available or accessible to persons with print disabilities (PWPDs), or otherwise the print disabled. These are persons who are blind or have visual impairments or perceptual or reading disabilities, which cannot be improved to give visual function substantially equivalent to that of persons who have no such impairments or disabilities and so are unable to read printed works to substantially the same degree as persons without impairments or disabilities, or are otherwise unable, through physical disability, to hold or manipulate a book or to focus or move the eyes to the extent that would be normally acceptable for reading, regardless of any other disabilities.
Available data from the World Blind Union shows that of all books published globally, only between 1 and 7 percent are available or accessible to persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled, who number about 285 million, most of whom are domiciled in underserved areas in developing countries. This number is put at 300 million in some publications. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least, 2.2 billion people worldwide have near or distant vision impairment. Notwithstanding the paucity of data, at least, 4.25 million Nigerians are blind or visually impaired.
It is recorded that in the developed world, 95% of published works are inaccessible to PWPDs. The situation is even direr in the low-income, middle-income, and developing world such as Africa, including Nigeria, where less than 1% of all published work is accessible to PWPDs. This means that 99% of published works are inaccessible to the print disabled in Nigeria. This global information poverty or “book famine” remains a veritable barrier to the quest for sustainable, equal, and inclusive education and access to quantitative and qualitative information. Hence, the importance of the Marrakesh Treaty cannot be overemphasised.
Viewing the global book/information famine as a human rights issue, and reinforcing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the Marrakesh Treaty aims to facilitate access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled. The Treaty, ratified by Nigeria but not yet nationalised or domesticated, among other things, grants mandatory copyright limitations and exceptions on all books or published works to the print disabled (“beneficiaries”) and governmental and non-governmental organisations (“authorized entities”) to make it easier for books or published works to be published, or republished, and shared in accessible formats, nationally and internationally (across borders).
By Article 2 of the Treaty, “accessible format copies” means copies of a published work in an alternative manner or form which gives persons with print disabilities access to the work, including to permit the persons to have access as feasibly and comfortably as persons without visual impairments or other print disabilities. The accessible format copies are used exclusively by persons with print disabilities and they must respect the integrity of the original work, taking due consideration of the changes needed to make the work accessible in the alternative format and of the accessibility needs of the print disabled. It includes assistive technology/software such as, screen readers, text to speech, switches, audiobooks, braille, large print, tactile graphics, e-books, and digital materials that are accessible to the print disabled, among others.
Still, the Marrakesh Treaty seemingly deals mainly with already published or available works and not otherwise. In other words, the Treaty seeks to resolve the gap between published works and availability or accessibility to PWPDs from the past by focusing on already published works, to republish them in accessible format copies. Thus, somewhat ignoring future publications. Because, while already published works are being republished in accessible format copies, future publications continue, the majority of which are yet in standard print or text-based formats.
The question may then be asked, would the gap between published works and their equivalent accessible format copies ever be closed, or would this be a case of an endless cycle where the latter perpetually lags behind or distantly follows the formal? This somewhat anomalous situation means that beyond the laudable provisions of the Marrakesh Treaty, something more should and has to be done if the quest for sustainable, equal, and inclusive access to information and learning is to be attained in Nigeria.
Which Way Forward?
The impact of this Proposed Draft Bill if passed into law cannot be overstated. Major outcomes would include making the National Library of Nigeria disability diverse and inclusive, reducing information poverty or scarcity, and encouraging inclusive learning, self-expression, and innovation among PWPDs. This would result in their overall socio-economic empowerment, mental health improvements, and general wellbeing. Also, it would facilitate the mainstreaming of future publications or published works in accessible format copies, and would also influence the attainment of most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
If the information poverty in Nigeria is not to endure any further, the National Library should necessarily become disability diverse and inclusive. This would have a spillover effect on the education institutions in Nigeria and the country at large. If I should dream, let me dream of a day when persons who are blind or visually impaired could work to any public library in our primary, secondary and tertiary institutions, and find there, readable or accessible books, including e-libraries and accessible websites, to the best of their disabilities. The print disabled should not be left to overcome information scarcity all by themselves, which is currently the case. No. The solution should be deliberately institutionalised, systematised, and mainstreamed. This is the only sustainable way forward – the road worth taking.
It is for this reason, therefore, that no efforts should be spared towards ensuring an inclusive National Library of Nigeria. All stakeholders should double down on this conversation. The Commission must leverage on its power, including the power to make regulations vested on the Governing Council for the Commission, and functions under the National Disability Act, which include formulating and implementing guidelines as appropriate for the education and social development of PWDs, ensuring that facilities in all communities in the federation shall be built and modified to accommodate PWDsestablishing and promoting inclusive schools, vocational centres, and rehabilitation centres for PWDs, liaising with the public and private sectors to ensure the interests of PWDs are taken care of in every government policy, programme, and activity, collaborating with the media to make information available in accessible formats for PWDs, and procuring assistive devices for all disability types, among others, to pursue inclusion and disability diversification of the National Library.
Furthermore, increased efforts should be made towards nationalising the Marrakesh Treaty by accelerating the passage of the Copyright (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill, 2021 (SB.688), which has passed the second reading at the Senate. And should there be anyone who is still in doubt of what to do, or how to do it, here you already have it – the Proposed Draft National Library (Amendment) Bill, 2021 – own it and run with it.