I must have been 6 or 7 years old when my mother suddenly took a detour on the way to church one sunny Sunday morning. It was to escort a lady with a white cane. This was my first encounter with a person who was blind.
At church, I would watch how she sang hymns beautifully by tracing brailled lyrics with her fingers. At home, I would sit beside my mother reciting books to a tape recorder for the lady.
These childhood experiences gradually planted an interest to somehow follow my mother’s footsteps of working with vision-impaired persons (VIPs). As a youth, I would offer occasional assistance to escort VIPs on streets or train platforms in Tokyo, or later as a volunteer to support a blind student living in the same university dormitory.
Through my work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the opportunity to work with a larger blind community came when an international treaty called The Marrakesh Treaty was adopted in 2013.
The Marrakesh Treaty aims to end the global ‘book famine’ that afflicts persons with ‘print disabilities’ and violates their human right to information. In most cases, books and other printed works are not accessible in formats such as braille, audio, e-books or large print.
The Marrakesh Treaty can benefit not only persons with vision impairments but much wider populations with disabilities that interfere with getting information and knowledge from printed works (e.g. not being able to see/read the text, hold a book, or turn pages). These can include dyslexia, Parkinson’s disease and paralysis.
Sadly, the World Blind Union estimates that less than 10 percent of published books are ever made into accessible formats. The figure falls to less than 1 percent in developing countries. People with print disabilities therefore have very limited opportunities to study, work, enjoy culture and fully participate in society.
The lack of school textbooks in accessible formats excludes students with print disabilities from receiving an adequate education, which significantly reduces their future job prospects and quality of life.
Up to 90 per cent of blind and vision-impaired persons of working age are unemployed in developing countries, according to the World blind Union. This explains why 80 per cent of people with disabilities live in poverty, and they are among the poorest of the poor.
The Marrakesh Treaty makes it legal and easier to produce and share accessible format copies, removing copyright barriers, for the use by persons with print disabilities, both within and between countries.
In a way, the Marrakesh Treaty is like creating borderless libraries for persons with print disabilities, just as sighted people can go to school or public libraries to read and borrow books.
The more countries that join the Treaty, the more accessible-format copies will be available and the more people with print disabilities can benefit from them. In the Asia-Pacific region, however, only seven countries have become parties to the Marrakesh Treaty so far. Forty have joined globally.
The Marrakesh Treaty also contributes to the UN Secretary General’s effort to “strengthen international cooperation in the digital space” through the recent launch of a High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, as the Treaty enables cross-border sharing of accessible format copies in digital formats.
UNDP is working together with the World Blind Union Asia-Pacific, a regional chapter of the World Blind Union, global experts, and UNDP country offices in Asia.
We have conducted legal reviews to support countries in the process of joining the Treaty; contributed to raising awareness about the Marrakesh Treaty (see the list below) and conducted stakeholder consultations; as well as articulated links to development benefits such as reducing poverty and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.
We also work to help bring out the voice of the blind community by supporting community empowerment and engagement, based on the principle of ‘reaching the furthest behind first’ — a value at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
These efforts aim to draw greater policy and public attention to the rights, challenges and celebration of persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups, triggering greater societal action. They are being left behind of development gains, yet they hold the key to moving us closer and faster to inclusive and sustainable societies for all.
My mother used to tell me, “People who are blind have a special ability to see the world with the mind’s eye, seeing what sighted people do not see.”
I believe the Marrakesh Treaty, and the work that UNDP and others do to support its implementation, can significantly help broaden their and our world’s horizons.