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AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
AHEAD: Association for Higher Education Access & Disability
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New Treaty Can Open Up a World of Knowledge for Students with Disabilities

For those of you who have not been following recent events in the world of Intellectual Copyright (that’s most of you, I guess!), last month saw a historic treaty agreed in the city of Marrakesh in Morocco which could have hugely positive implications for students with visual impairments and other print disabilities. If signed and ratified, the Marrakesh Treaty will allow ‘authorised entities’ to convert a book into an accessible format for use by such students without consent from the copyright owner and crucially, will allow these accessible versions to be distributed cross-border to other countries who have signed and ratified the treaty.

So who is a beneficiary and who is an ‘authorised entity’?

The beneficiaries of the treaty (i.e. those for whom the normal national copyright law is overwritten for the purposes of the treaty) are those who are blind/visually impaired as well as those with other perceptual and reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. Bodies which are allowed to create and distribute accessible versions of books are those authorised or recognised by governments to provide education, instructional training, adaptive reading or information access to beneficiary persons on a non-profit basis. Moreover, they can be government institutions or non-profit organisations that provide the same services to beneficiary persons as one of their primary activities or institutional obligations. Such organisations would include colleges, libraries, government departments and disability related not-for-profit organisations like AHEAD, amongst others.

What is the current state of play in Ireland?

Every time a college wishes to make an accessible version of a book for one of it’s students, it must first receive the permission of the copyright holder to do so. Colleges will usually at this point try to ensure that permission is received to distribute to other students with disabilities who may require it in future years to eliminate having to repeat the long process. In some cases this can take months and when you add on the time it takes to do the actual work of transferring the text from a printed book to an accessible format, a student can be left waiting an unacceptable length of time for core textbooks.

On top of this, it is currently illegal for an Irish college to import an accessible book from another country without again receiving the express permission of the copyright owner and in many cases, due to differing copyright and equality laws in different territories, publishers may refuse the right of permission. This means that the time-consuming, expensive work of reproducing books in accessible formats is not only being duplicated in some cases nationally, but worldwide. The complexity and length of the process often means that affected students may only receive a few books which are absolutely core to the curriculum, while their non-disabled peers have a whole gamut of extra information accessible to them.

How will the Marrakesh Treaty change this, if ratified?

Firstly, the time it takes to produce an accessible text will greatly reduce due to the elimination of the stage of the process where consent is gained from the copyright owner. As you can imagine, finding out who the copyright owner is and gaining the necessary written consent to reproduce the work in a digital format can be very time-consuming, particularly well you are dealing with publishers with growing concerns around piracy eating away at their profit margins.

However, the most startling change for students here in Ireland is in the area of cross-border transfer of accessible books. Take a moment to consider the ramifications if for example both Ireland and the USA sign and ratify the agreement. The USA has a population almost 70 times the size of Ireland and it stands to reason that there is many more English language accessible books produced there every year as a result. Ratification of the treaty will give prompt access to all of this previously unavailable material for students who need it and will open up the possibility on an international library of accessible texts.

Why haven’t Ireland signed and ratified yet?

All 186 countries involved in the negotiations have one year in which to decide whether they’ll sign the treaty and signing represents a commitment to legislate nationally for it’s provisions in the coming years. 51 countries including the UK have already signed up and although Ireland is not yet one of them, a Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation official who took part in the negotiations told us that they expect to sign it within the one year deadline and if that happens, 2-3 years from now would be a realistic timeline for full ratification

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When the treaty was eventually agreed upon, the blind community who have fought particularly hard for this measure rejoiced, with even Stevie Wonder keeping his promise to perform for the negotiators in Marrakesh the night after agreement was reached.

Not many people this side of Europe would have known anything about the city of Marrakesh before this treaty, but many would recognize the city of Casablanca some 240km north of there, as the setting of one of the most iconic films ever made. Humphrey Bogart speculates in this cinematic classic, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" and for students with disabilities with the possibility of new access to volumes of literature and textbooks, he might well be right.

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