Today is a monumental day for millions of people around the world with reading barriers due to blindness, low vision, dyslexia, or a physical disability. With the full support of Congress and approval by President Trump, the United States joins the 70 other countries that have ratified the Marrakesh Treaty, formally known as the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled. Benetech, with our long-standing work in social good, is excited to use the terms of this treaty to increase literacy and education throughout the world with our well-known Bookshare initiative.
Why is the U.S. Ratification Worth Celebrating?
Through the invaluable set of relationships Bookshare has with over 850 publishers who give us titles that we convert into accessible formats for our members, we have been able to offer electronic books around the world. Over 450,000 books are available in almost every country, and each book is in multiple accessible formats including text-to-speech and braille, for a total of over 2,250,000 choices for what and how our members want to read. As of today, in countries that have already ratified the Marrakesh Treaty, we can expand Bookshare’s large library of publisher-granted titles that we make available to people with print disabilities.
We operate under an exception in U.S. Copyright Law that allows us to scan and convert books to make them accessible for people who have disabilities that affect their use of print. To date, we have transformed over 100,000 books into five accessible formats. Until today, those scanned books have been available to print-disabled people only in the U.S. since they were created under U.S. Copyright Law. Distributing those scanned books outside the country was illegal. Now, with the passage of the Marrakesh Treaty, we can add that group of approximately 100,000 books to the collection of 450,000, making them all available to print disabled citizens in every Marrakesh Treaty-ratifying country. That means we can provide over 550,000 books, all in multiple formats. These books can be accessed on nearly any device, including phones, tablets, computers, MP3 players, and specialized assistive technology devices. In addition to English, books are available in a growing number of languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, French, Spanish, and Russian.
Severe Shortage of Accessible Books in Developing Countries
I recently spoke with one international government official who told me they had 83 braille books in their entire country. This shortage is the status quo in developing countries around the world, where a high percentage of people suffer from visual impairments due to lack of treatment options. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired, and 90% of them live in developing nations. In addition, studies show that dyslexia occurs in 5-10% of the world’s population. That means countries with the highest incidence of print disability also have the lowest capacity to help. These countries lack the resources to build collections of accessible books. Now, with U.S. ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, they don’t have to. By partnering with Benetech’s Bookshare library, that government official I spoke with can increase the number of accessible books available in his country by 6,000 percent!
Additionally, ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty by the U.S. means we can import titles from other ratifying countries. Canada, Mexico, and the 28 countries of the European Union have ratified the Treaty, but, until today, we did not have access to books that were made available to people with print disabilities in those countries. Thankfully, a wealth of books in multiple languages are now available from across Europe.
There is still a lot of work ahead of us to ensure people around the world who read differently have access to the books they need in ways that work for them. The Marrakesh Treaty is a boon to our efforts, but our work is far from done.
Help Us Expand Bookshare Worldwide
Bookshare expansion efforts are underway in various regions around the world. We actively partner with dozens of existing libraries in industrialized nations, and we work with a variety of organizations serving people with reading barriers in many other countries. Benetech recently partnered with the Electronic Information for Libraries to enable 41 countries to provide members with access to the Bookshare library. Interested libraries should contact the EIFL Licensing coordinator in their country to find out how to sign up.
Help us make Bookshare available to even more readers. Millions of people around the world can benefit from libraries of local and international content that open up new opportunities for learning and employment, provide access to information, and reduce poverty. You can help us give children a brighter future in education, health, and society.