This is a decisive moment for sight-impaired people like me: men and women who are seeking to expand our minds and to contribute to the societies in which we live.
We still cannot enjoy a book or a periodical unless it has been produced in Braille or a large-print edition, or transferred to an audible format by a human or artificial reader. But our lives may be about to change for the better.
It is difficult for me and many other sight-impaired people to grasp that, in this age of personal computing, digital information transfer, 3D printers, and narration software, our access to publications that we can read remains unnecessarily restricted.
In India, for example, about 100,000 new book titles were published during 2009; but only around 500, or 0.5 per cent, were made accessible to the country's millions of sight-impaired people. In francophone Africa, some of the places worst ravaged by river blindness and other diseases that attack the eyes, the share of accessible publications for people like me is less than 1 per cent. In the United States, Australia, and the European Union, accessible Braille, large-print, and audio titles account, at best, for 7 per cent of the total number of publications.
But the problem is worse than these numbers suggest. Under existing copyright restrictions, titles accessible in the richest countries remain inaccessible to readers in the poorest. In too many cases, a copyright-protected audio book produced in France or Canada, for example, cannot legally be shared with a college library in francophone Africa for use by blind students. Argentina and Spain cannot legally share their 165,000 accessible titles with libraries for Spanish-speaking blind people in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Uruguay, which together have only 8,517 titles.
This restriction is absurd, and it causes unnecessary hardship.
In India, sight-impaired doctoral candidates have abandoned their work only because they lack sufficient access to the necessary texts. At state universities in Africa, libraries have nothing to offer blind undergraduates, or any other blind people. Noah Kabbakeh, one of my vision-impaired colleagues in Freetown, Sierra Leone, needed four years to complete a two-year master's programme in the social sciences, not because he is unable to grasp the material quickly enough, but because he had to earn money to hire someone to read aloud textbooks and other class materials that any seeing graduate student could have obtained from the university library.
Given the obvious need, and the availability of technologies to meet it cost-effectively, one would think that publishers and officials charged with the protection of intellectual property would quickly embrace an agreement that would give sight-impaired people broader access. One would think that college and public libraries, and other open depositories, would have books already being produced and made accessible elsewhere.
Over the past four years, in a United Nations-sponsored process, negotiators specialising in intellectual property have been struggling to draft an agreement that would allow, for example, blind people, organisations for the blind, and other institutions to share books for the blind across borders.
In mid-December, the general assembly of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, at an extraordinary assembly in Geneva, said a diplomatic conference in Morocco next June would attempt to reach a treaty on this matter.
At the Geneva meeting, the US said it supported a "legally binding agreement" but did not refer specifically to a treaty.
Sight-impaired people around the world desperately need a lucid, workable treaty, and not a "soft law" encumbered by caveats and riddled with loopholes that favour copyright holders rather than balancing publishers' rights with the needs and rights of the visually impaired. The EU, after years of refusal, finally agreed last month to support a treaty; it should now press for clear, implementable language that will allow organisations to share Braille, large-print, and audio books with each other and with people whose disabilities make them unable to read.
The negotiators from the US, whose backing is crucial, have yet even to pronounce the word "treaty" during the drafting process. It is time for president Barack Obama's administration to see what we see and allow its negotiators to press for adoption of a legally binding treaty.
Chris Friend is the head of the Right to Read Campaign of the World Blind Union.
* Project Syndicate