Seeing the unseen in Nepal

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2022 calls for inclusive development, access to digital books is one way to do that

When Thomas Alva Edison turned in his patent application for the tin foil phonograph in 1877, one of the 10 uses he cited for his invention was: phonograph books, which will speak to blind persons without effort on their part. Interestingly, this use was second in his list, while reproduction of music was fourth.

The phonograph became an instant hit and went on to revolutionise the global music industry. The development of books that could speak to the blind, however, fell far behind. Even today, despite much innovation and technological advancement in the field, visually impaired readers are have access to limited book titles.

Equal access to books is a legal right. Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) requires state parties to ensure that children with disabilities, including blind children, 'are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability' and that they have access to 'inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education'.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) also states that equal access to all levels of education and that vocational training must be ensured for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities. However, only 7% of the world’s books are accessible to print-disabled people. This figure is even lower at 1% in developing countries. This can be called a global book famine for the visually impaired.

But in 2013, members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to ‘facilitate access to published works for persons who are visually impaired or otherwise print disabled’. The cross-border exchange of copyrighted books will now be legal without the permission of rightsholders for non-profit uses to serve the visually impaired. It allows persons who cannot read conventional printed books to share accessible formats such as digital, audio, digital accessible information system or DAISY and braille without express permission from the copyright holders.

In Nepal, DAISY – a technical standard for digital audiobooks, specifically designed for use by people with 'print disabilities' – was first introduced with technical support and collaboration from JICA Japan. Birendra Raj Pokharel, former president of the National Federation of Disabled in Nepal spearheaded the initiation of Daisy for All (DFA) project in 2004 following which it was extended throughout the country by the government with the inclusion of funds for DAISY promotional activities in subsequent annual budgets.

However, the production of ebooks in the Nepali language has been slow with only around 5,000 available. This number is especially low given that the technology arrived in Nepal nearly 20 years ago. The Nepal government has formulated an ambitious plan to provide accessible ICT for education in its program for the current year. But the government’s investment plan for producing accessible DAISY books is insignificant.

Nepal became the 86thcountry to ratify the UNCRPD and the 53rdto ratify the Optional Protocol on 7 May 2010. But being a party to an international protocol is not good enough. Given the poor state of accessibility to digital books and the general condition of digital study materials in Nepal, the government has to first ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to provide accessible books for those with print and visual disabilities, implement the measures needed for digital accessibility in education and substantially increase the annual budgetary allocation in the production of DAISY books.

The new generation is at a crossroads. On one hand, we use voice-controlled artificial intelligence tools like Alexa and Siri for day-to-day support but the same society is superstitious and believes that disabilities are a curse, or that misfortune is contagious. For society to regard people with disabilities as not different people, but just people with differences, a joint and a collaborative effort is required.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December is 'Transformative solutions for inclusive development: The role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world'.

Inclusive development will only be possible if the government brings onboard learning institutions, funding agencies, aid agencies, the private sector engaged in the publication business, and civil society together to embrace the UN SDG principles of 'Leaving no one behind'. Only then can we think of a society where there is 'freedom of reading' for the visibly impaired.

Asmi Ghimire is a student at KISC, Lalitpur, and her voice is in many digital book narrations prepared for the visually impaired.