Marrakesh Treaty on accessible books moves toward ratification

A man and a woman read braille while sitting on the floor
June 30, 2014

One year ago in Morocco, notably on the anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth, The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) concluded a treaty that marked a significant step in opening doors to literacy and opportunity for people who are blind. The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled aims to free up international access to books for people who are blind.

Nearly 80 countries have already signed the treaty. India became the first to ratify the treaty at a WIPO ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland. For Perkins, founded 185 years ago as the first school in the United States for students with visual impairments, that vital step resonates with their evolving worldwide mission.

Leading advocates for accessible literacy believe treaty will change lives

One hundred thirty four years she was born, Helen Keller’s astonishing intellectual and human rights accomplishments still inspire. Though deafblind, Keller was famously educated by Perkins School for the Blind alumna Anne Sullivan and graduated with honors from Radcliffe College. She traveled the world, fought for women’s and workers’ rights and wrote several books.

"In a word," said Keller, "literature is my Utopia." International legal restrictions would make it difficult for her to get access today to the books and information that fueled her mind.

Kim Charlson provides accessible literature of all types in her role as director of the Perkins Library. As president of the American Council of the Blind and a renowned advocate for literacy, Charlson, who is blind, is keenly aware of the impact of the Marrakesh Treaty on what the World Blind Union calls a book famine. "This treaty," says Kim Charlson of Perkins, "has the potential to change people's lives. It will set in motion processes that will finally end the shameful worldwide dearth of books that has plagued people who are blind. This shortage is a major barrier to the education and employment of people who are blind and impedes their full integration into society. Currently, less than five percent of books published each year are available in accessible formats. With the treaty, this will change for the better."

In a commentary that appeared in the Hindustan Times on Friday, June 27, Unilever CEO and Perkins’ International Advisory Board chair Paul Polman calls ratification of the treaty "a pivotal move towards handing hundreds of millions of people the keys that may unlock the next mind as brilliant as Helen Keller’s." Polman is also founder of Kilimanjaro Blind Trust, Inc., a Perkins partner organization that fosters literacy in East Africa.

Adapting to the ever-faster pace of communication and information exchange is essential to education, employment, and participation in society and the marketplace. The world needs every mind to be engaged. Bringing people who are blind or cannot read traditional print into the mix is key to advancing knowledge and commerce internationally, according to Ambassador Juan José Gómez Camacho, Ambassador of Mexico to the EU and to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and a member of Perkins’ International Advisory Board.

"Access to written, published materials is not just a matter of human rights or education – but also economics," says the ambassador, an energetic proponent of the treaty. "Currently, people who are blind are lost economic opportunities for their countries. Ratification of the treaty will create a positive impact on the global economy and international publishing industry." And the ambassador emphasizes, "It will be good for business when this untapped segment of the population can access the vital published materials that will enable them to enter the ranks of those producing wealth and knowledge."

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