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Accessible Books Consortium: Breaking Down Barriers to Accessibility

August 2014

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Dipendra Manocha has been blind since childhood. Against all the odds, however, thanks to a supportive family and the encouragement of his teachers he made it through school and went on to study music at Delhi University graduating with an MPhil in 1992. Today, as President of the DAISY Forum, he is helping to put into place a communications and training infrastructure that is transforming the lives of people living with print disabilities (e.g. blindness, low vision, dyslexia) in India and beyond.

Like millions of other students with print disabilities, Dipendra faced a severe shortage of course books in formats such as Braille, large print and audio, which would have allowed him to study independently. He had no choice but to rely on human readers who were not always as reliable as he would have liked, sometimes causing him to miss important deadlines.

According to the World Blind Union (WBU), less than 10 percent of all published materials are available in formats that can be read by people living with print disabilities and many of these are available in English alone. Only by ending this global “book famine” will it be possible to help ensure that those living with print disabilities will be in a position to lead independent and productive lives.

One year after the historic conclusion of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, WIPO and its partners are ramping up efforts to expand availability of and access to works in accessible formats.

Photo: iStockphoto © Marilyn Nieves

Whereas the Marrakesh Treaty addresses the legal barriers to the international exchange of these works – it creates exemptions to copyright law that allow for the production and international exchange of accessible books without the permission of right holders - the newly formed Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), launched in June 2014, tackles practical barriers to access. “The Marrakesh Treaty is a means to an end and that end is getting books in accessible formats into the hands of the printed disabled,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry at the ABC launch.

The ABC gives practical expression to the policies laid out in the Marrakesh Treaty and strengthens the ecosystem for the production and distribution of books in accessible formats. “It breathes life into the legal framework that was established in the Marrakesh Treaty,” noted Mr. Gurry.

The “ABC will play a key role in spreading knowledge about the treaty and supporting the development of national policies in compliance with the Marrakesh Treaty and to developing the skills to take advantage of such national and international policies and systems,” explained Dipendra Manocha.

A meeting of minds

The Consortium brings together an alliance of organizations representing the print disabled, authors and publishers. All of these stakeholders “need to be in a dialogue in order to improve access,” noted Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association (IPA). The Consortium “acknowledges the important role publishers play in providing access for persons with print disability,” he said, noting the IPA is “100 per cent behind” the initiative.

Such collaboration is pivotal to the number and range of works available in accessible formats, noted Olav Stokkmo, Chief Executive of the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFFRO). “The key opportunity here is that persons who have print disabilities, through technology and co-operation, can get significantly improved access to books and other publications which were not previously accessible to them in appropriate formats.”

Each group plays a critical role in the value chain of publishing and distribution of accessible format works and in realizing the goal of inclusive publishing, where the same book is available at the same time and price as for sighted people. “The Consortium will help ensure that blind and visually impaired people receive accessible material in the quickest and most streamlined fashion,” explained François Hendrikz, Director of the South African Library for the Blind.

The Consortium’s work covers three main areas: capacity building; an international book exchange - the TIGAR service – to identify and facilitate access to works in accessible formats; and inclusive publishing.

Building capacity

Strengthening the skills and knowledge-base for the production and distribution of books, especially school books, in accessible formats (and local languages) in developing countries is a priority. Around 90 percent of people living with print disabilities reside in developing countries. Without the tools to learn how to read and write, the life chances of children with print disabilities narrow dramatically. The WBU estimates employment rates in developing countries among people with print disabilities is less than 10 percent.

The ABC trains print disability support organizations, local publishers and government services in the latest accessible format publishing technologies. This will help expand the number and range of works available. In India, for example, only some 18,000 books are available in accessible formats (and the bulk of these in English only) compared to the collection of 184,084 accessible format books held by the US National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

“Books will become accessible when publishers produce in accessible formats, and organizations producing and distributing books to persons who are blind or have a print disability have the skills and capacity to undertake this work. This is particularly important in developing countries where there are often no libraries or organizations providing services to blind people,” noted WBU’s ABC representative Scott Labarre. The Consortium can “help us reach a day where all electronic books are born accessible,” he added.

Marketing and cost-saving opportunities

The aim is to strengthen the publishing ecosystem so that each link in the value chain works in support of accessible publishing and meeting the needs of print disabled people.

“The copyright holder and print disabled communities share an interest in developing technologies that enable publishers to produce accessible format copies in a cost efficient way,” Mr. Stokkmo explained. This not only creates marketing opportunities for publishers, but “will address the back list of books that are not born accessible and further expand the opportunity for publishers to serve the print disabled community [and] offer a work to sighted customers and print disabled customers at the same time,” he noted.

“We want to mainstream accessibility so that mainstream digital publishing itself becomes accessible so we don’t have to republish information that is already available,” said Mr. Manocha.

Bridging technology gaps

The Consortium will also help narrow gaps in technology and infrastructure in developing countries. These are especially evident “when it comes to producing materials in accessible formats or being able to read digital files using assisted technology,” Mr. Manocha explained. In India, for example, text-to-speech technology exists in English and Hindi but not in the 21 other languages spoken in the country. “There is no text-to-speech engine available for the Punjabi language in India, so even if we have digital text files they cannot be read by the user. We need to bridge these gaps,” Mr. Manocha said. In many developing countries, where it exists, text-to-speech technology is often basic and expensive (costing up to a third of a monthly salary).

“To be able to participate in the international exchange of books we need to be able to capture information about the books that are being distributed, to whom and in what numbers,” noted Mr. Manocha. “These capacities need to be built in developing countries to create an environment in which publishers feel confident in sharing their materials with organizations serving the print disabled community.” This is one of the Consortium’s priorities.

Building capacity in Bangladesh

Thanks to funds from the Government of Australia, the ABC is training staff at Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a non-governmental organization based in Bangladesh, in accessible format publishing technologies to expand the range of educational materials available to print disabled students at the University of Chittagong. The initiative is “a giant leap” notes YPSA’s Vashkar Bhattacharjee. “For the first time in the history of Bangladesh, we are making study materials available in accessible format [in Bengali] for visually impaired students studying in higher secondary level,” he said. Students are also very excited about the prospect of having access to a Bengali dictionary in accessible format in the near future.

The TIGAR Service

The ABC’s TIGAR Service supports broader access by facilitating the search for, and cross-border exchange of, books in accessible formats. To date, this unique global repository includes over 238,000 titles in 55 languages. Participating organizations (currently 12) can trawl the database to identify the works they need. The aim is to make TIGAR the global “go to” place for accessible titles.

TIGAR is “a fantastic way to ensure that everybody can find out what accessible format books exist around the world and contact those who currently have them,” noted Mr. Bammel.

The aim is to bring more partners on board. “We want to get as many of the libraries and related organizations serving the reading and information needs of people with print disabilities as possible linked to the TIGAR catalogue,” said Francois Hendrikz.

The TIGAR service will help ensure a user-friendly license-clearing mechanism is in place to facilitate the cross-border exchange of accessible format works. Until the Marrakesh Treaty enters into force – and then only in respect of countries that ratify it – rights need to be cleared by the relevant right holders before any international exchange can take place. “Having a database that contains a list of all those books that are accessible and where to find them is terrific, but that is only a list unless we are able to move books from one country to another” noted Ms. Maryanne Diamond, Immediate Past President of the WBU and Chair, International Disability Alliance, who urged WIPO’s member states to make ratification of the treaty a priority.

The TIGAR Service also helps generate significant cost savings by reducing duplication. When, for example, the South African Library for the Blind needs an accessible format version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, they can acquire it from another participating library and use their resources to convert other titles. “We don’t want one book to be re-published many times in accessible formats. If it has been converted into an accessible format once, that version should be shareable among various organizations to reach end users,” Mr. Manocha said.

Promoting publishing in accessible formats

In support of the overriding goal of mainstreaming inclusive publishing - so published books are usable from the outset by both sighted people and those with print disabilities – the Consortium has established a Charter for Accessible Publishing.

The leading scientific publisher, Elsevier, became the first to sign up to the Charter at ABC’s launch. “Elsevier is proud to become the first signatory of the new Charter,” said Ms. Alicia Wise, Director of Access and Policy at Elsevier who applauded the ABC’s leadership in this area. "At Elsevier we endeavor to make our products fully accessible to all users, regardless of physical abilities," she added.

Current members of the TIGAR Service

  • Australia: VisAbility (formerly the Association for the Blind of Western Australia)
  • Brazil: Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind
  • Canada: Canadian National Institute for the Blind
  • Denmark: Nota - Danish National Library for Persons with Print Disabilities
  • France: Association Valentin Haüy
  • New Zealand: Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind
  • Norway: Norwegian Library of Talking Books and Braille
  • South Africa: South African Library for the Blind
  • Sweden: Swedish Agency for Accessible Media
  • Switzerland: Association pour le Bien des Aveugles et malvoyants ; and the Swiss Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Print Disabled
  • United States: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

The way forward

The ABC’s members are upbeat and enthusiastic about their ability to make a real impact. “We are really hoping the Consortium will help us in ending the book famine,” Mr. Manocha said.

“We have a great opportunity to transform the lives of millions and millions of people. Blind people of the world watched with excitement the adoption of the treaty last year. We are waiting for our lives to be transformed and it is in our hands collectively to make this happen,” said Ms. Diamond.

This crucial work, however, is resource intensive and requires much-needed financial support. The ABC’s secretariat, located at WIPO’s headquarters in Switzerland, is actively seeking financial or in kind contributions to help ensure this ground-breaking initiative reaches its full potential.

If you are interested in supporting the work of the ABC and want to help transform the lives of people living with print disabilities, contact Accessible.Books@wipo.int.

India is first to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty

Just one year after its conclusion, India became the first country to ratify the landmark Marrakesh Treaty which seeks to ease access to books for people with print disabilities.

India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Ambassador Dilip Sinha said “India supports the Marrakesh Treaty for its human rights and social development dimension. The speedy ratification of the Treaty reflects India’s commitment to facilitating access to published works for the millions of blind, visually impaired and otherwise print disabled persons.”

“We hope other countries will follow India’s lead quickly so the Treaty can enter into force and we begin to see real and tangible benefits for the world’s blind and visually impaired community,” he added.

The treaty will take effect when 20 ratifications or accessions are presented to WIPO.


The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.