June 11, 2013

If You Were Blind, Could You Read This?

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Gary C. Norman

by Gary C. Norman, Esq. L.L.M. is a Maryland Civil Rights Commissioner and a learned lawyer. Mr. Norman is the co-founder and an editor of the Mid-Atlantic Journal on Law and Public Policy..

“We are at a point where accessibility can and should be the default mode for all books.” (Jim Fruchterman in Poisoning the Treaty for the Blind)

The guests of President Jefferson, of President Theodore Roosevelt and of Jonathan Milton, all masters of the written word, supp on a rich repast. While seated at an antique dining room set, the three devotees of books inquire into the status of libraries, inquire into societies that discuss important works and inquire into writers. Mr. Milton has a unique perspective on books, as an individual once blind, who now finds himself at the abode of a blind attorney. After the dinner host informs the author about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“Convention”), including its estimate that there are one billion people with disabilities, three hundred plus million of which has vision loss; the author inquires into whether there are more opportunities than in his epoch for the blind to be equal participants in civil society. The response to that inquiry may depend on the extent to which delegations support an international instrument at a forthcoming diplomatic multi-party stakeholder conference hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco in 17-28 June.

Whether a person with a disability is a resident of the United States or even of the United Kingdom, they may have more immediate access to the printed word than did Milton through a range of platforms, including, but not limited to, a digital download site called BARD that a division of the Library of Congress called the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (“National Library Services”) operates. While computer technology certainly revolutionized the lives of all Americans in the late Twentieth Century; computer technology specifically expanded opportunities for people with disabilities, allowing them to have standard print translated into useable material that software called a screen-reader verbalizes out loud. Digitalization, the next technological development, also expanded access to the printed word by advancing reading technology from analog cassettes to compressed files, where hundreds or thousands of pages of text is contained on one specialized CD or even now downloadable website. Organizations, such as the Learning Alley and the National Library Service, facilitate access to books through these technologies. As stated in an August, 2012, piece in the Guardian newspaper, “It's now possible, with the right combination of hardware and software, to buy a book at 9am, scan it page by page, then uses a screen-reader to render it either into synthetic speech, or into Braille, and be reading it by lunchtime.” If the global community does not undertake affirmative steps, such as advancing the treaty for creating limitations and exceptions to copyright law to promote multi-border access to the digitalized printed word, then there will never be a sufficient number of leaders with disabilities in civil society in that, at the end of the day, knowledge is power and it is knowledge that breaks down barriers for minority populations.

Just as everything else has globalized, so have disability rights. According to an article in the Washington Post, 57 nations have some form of exceptions to national copyright law fostering access to the printed word through alternative format text conversion by people with disabilities. While that is laudable, there is not good operability across borders as concerns translating the written word into electronic formats. To address this, nations like Brazil called, as far back as 2009, for an international instrument fostering a broad sense of “fair use” legal doctrine. As with the Convention, leadership in advancing broader international access to the printed word has generated not as much from the formal government but has been found in non-governmental organizations and the advocates who advance their important work, such as the American Council of the Blind; as Jim Fruchterman, who is the founder of Book Share, an online book sharing website for those with print disabilities; and as the National Federation of the Blind. Not all agree the blind should have a broad sense of fair use as to facilitate more electronic and accessible books for them.

While the noted thinker and author Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that consistency is the hobgoblin of a weak mind; perhaps the needs of the disabled require consistency to level the playing field. The United States deserves praise for its extensive legal framework protecting the rights of its citizens with disabilities, including, but not limited to, certain limitations and exceptions to American copyright law enabling broad access to the printed word. Notably, the Jaffey Amendment to the copyright statutory scheme enacted in the 1990s promotes broad sharing and exchange of copyrighted works of publishers for reading and educational purposes of those who have difficulty because of a disability with standard print. Because some American leaders and their constituents have arguably a disdain for anything international, protections available here at home should not be extended within the international arena. Five votes in the United States Senate nullified the praiseworthiness of our government when the Convention, an international human rights instrument modeled on American disability rights panoply, lay on the table instead of receiving, as it should have, ratification. Various statements issued by Disability People Organizations contend explicitly or implicitly that, for the entire workman like efforts of the domestic and international disability rights community, the international instrument may also lie on the table because of corporations and their anti-disability related or misguided special interests. Among the corporations in this regard is Monsanto Co. Given the foregoing, this author finds himself with a shrug and must propound a question:

What is amiss with American leaders who failed to ratify the Convention, and by extension, with special interests, such as large and faceless corporations, who want to keep the blind in the dark instead of advancing access to the printed word?

While bidding farewell to the presidents, Milton comments that, in a time where there are contraptions called computers, contraptions called smart phones, and contraptions called digitalized books or e-books, all of which have the ability to verbalize information to the blind through synthetic speech, one would think the blind would have well established and have widely accepted rights to information and knowledge, more so than in my day.