What next to aid visually impaired?

The proliferation of standardised Braille opened up the world of knowledge for the visually impaired in 20th century, and now the Marrakesh Treaty — a global agreement to allow published materials in accessible formats to be exchanged freely across borders — is a significant step towards eradicating what is described as “the book famine” in the 21st century.

When the discussion of the treaty began at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in the late 2000s, it gained a large opposition primarily from major publishers in the United States and Europe. However, due to the unstinting efforts of the World Blind Union (WBU), every major country ratified the treaty, leading to its adaptation by the WIPO at Marrakesh, Morocco, in 2013. India became the first country to ratify the treaty in 2014. However, the crowning moment was when the US ratified it in February 2019, opening up a treasure-trove of books and materials to the community across the globe.

Professor Fredric Schroeder was one of many who watched with excitement and triumph when the world slowly but surely embraced the idea of providing books in accessible formats for the visually impaired. The Washington DC-based president of World Blind Union was recently in the city and told Deccan Herald that wiping out the book famine is the first of many battles that it has been fronting.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is the next major front in that battle?

The next big thing is making low-cost refreshable Braille displays available for children in developing countries. We’ve opened up the borders and the books are getting exchanged, but accessing them could be a big challenge for children in underdeveloped countries. Refreshable Braille displays are the best way they could connect to the internet and access materials. Some people say that the internet may not be available in many countries, but it’s not so bad. There are public spaces like libraries where they could access the internet.

Refreshable Braille displays synchronise with the text displayed on the computer screen and keep refreshing as the text on the screen changes. These cost nearly $5000. Our idea is to bring it down to nearly $300 or $400 so that they could use for a few years, dispose of them and buy new ones. Recently there’s the low-cost and portable Braille display called Orbit in the market. It’s just the first step in making such devices available widely.

How would you describe the World Blind Union?

We are composed of organisations for the visually impaired from different countries. We draft policies that reflect the needs of the visually impaired worldwide. NGOs are important partners to ensure needs are met at a local level and basic issues like access to education, employment and removal of social barriers, happen so that the visually impaired lead fulfilling lives. Our executive committee and the general assembly become mechanisms to gather inputs and further our activities. All of our planning involves the needs of individual countries.

What’s the need for a global body such as yours?

We take up activities that individual countries can’t do by themselves. The Marrakesh Treaty is a good example. We’ve also made sure the visually impaired people’s requirements are covered in the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability. Right now, we’re working to ensure that the electronic cars that could operate at a high speed without sound have a minimum sound standard so that visually impaired pedestrians can recognise their movement and stay safe on roads. We’ve ensured minimum sound standards are adopted by 50 countries. Since several automobile makers are on board, the standards have a wider impact. These are issues that need international intervention.

How challenging it is for the visually impaired to adapt to the changing technology?

With certain accessibility standards in place, it is possible to use newer technology. Take autonomous cars, for instance, it’s exciting since it would be possible for the visually impaired to drive by themselves. But right now we have challenges. In case a taxi service like Uber was to deploy autonomous cars, how could a visually impaired person recognise that the car is at their doorstep after it reports its arrival? Until now, the cab driver would locate them. In such issues, we work to ensure basic standards are in place so that everyone can be included. Also, we promote what is called the universal design of products such as the iPhone, which has an accessibility component and doesn’t cost much because it’s specially made for the visually impaired.

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