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New Treaty Boosts Text Access for Blind People

A global copyright agreement will increase the availability of scientific texts in accessible formats
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From Nature magazine

An international treaty approved on 27 June is a major victory for people with visual impairments. The 186 member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization came to a historic agreement to remove copyright obstacles that have hampered the global availability of textbooks and other published works in accessible formats such as braille, large print and audio.

The agreement, which has been a decade in the making, was reached in Marrakesh, Morocco, after more than a week of intense negotiations. All ratifying states must now introduce national copyright exemptions that will allow government agencies and non-profit bodies to convert published works to accessible versions and distribute them globally to visually impaired people.

The agreement also means that organizations for the blind will be able to freely share their collections of accessibly formatted works across borders, in particular with developing nations. Only around one-third of the world’s countries, mostly the richest, have such copyright exceptions in place. Yet 90% of the world’s 285 million visually impaired people live in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. The treaty will help visually impaired individuals worldwide to have “access to and full participation in science education and research”, says Richard Weibl, director of the Project on Science, Technology, and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

But organizations for blind people have the resources to convert only a fraction of the books and other materials published each year. So they are also pushing for publishers to format their mainstream products to be fully accessible to the blind from the outset and for suppliers of devices such as e-readers, tablets and smartphones to ensure that such content is usable.

“We have not yet seen the adoption of accessible formats and standards on the scale that we would like to see, particularly in the area of scientific and mathematical texts,” says Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the US National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland.

A big step towards that goal came in March, when the International Publishers Association endorsed EPUB 3 — sweeping international standards for publishing multimedia-rich, interactive digital content on all devices.

EPUB 3 incorporates the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium standards that many organizations for blind people use to convert books and other published content to accessible formats. The DAISY standards are a set of specifications for formatting digital documents that allow for unrivalled speech-based access to texts. They permit blind people to easily navigate chunky textbooks, for example, to add audio notes, and to create and find bookmarks. The DAISY standards also make figures, graphics and equations machine-readable and thus accessible to the blind through a range of software and devices, including refreshable braille, embossing printers and tactile tablets.

“I’m very excited about EPUB 3,” says Mark Doyle, director of journal information systems at the American Physical Society (APS) in New York. The APS is one of the few publishers to have experimented with using DAISY standards so far. Adding DAISY functionality to the society’s papers would have been too cumbersome and costly, he says. But in the coming years it will be much easier to include it now that the APS is shifting its publishing workflow towards using EPUB 3 across the board.

However, whether publishers will take full advantage of the opportunities offered by EPUB 3 to make graphics and equations accessible remains a concern, says John Gardner, a solid-state physicist and founder of ViewPlus Technologies in Corvallis, Oregon. Gardner lost his sight at the age of 48 and has since dedicated his talents to developing assistive software and devices to make scientific content more accessible to the blind.

Even if publishers do widely embrace EPUB 3’s accessibility features, another big unknown is whether e-readers and other devices will support them. Amazon’s Kindle reader, for example, provides access to a vast library, including classics such as Molecular Biology of the Cell (5th edn, Garland Science, 2012), but is “still not fully accessible”, says Danielsen.

Broader access came in May, when Amazon released an application that allows many Kindle e-books to be read on Apple devices using Apple’s VoiceOver — a screen reader designed for the blind. Organizations for the blind give Apple products top marks for their attention to accessibility. Larry Hjelmeland, a blind researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies the biology of eye ageing, says that Apple’s latest operating system has made it much easier for him to read everything from e-mails to scientific papers.

Gardner hopes that the treaty and advances in technology will also help to address the under-representation of the visually impaired in science. “These people tend to have restricted opportunities for social interaction and entertainment,” he says. “So they often are much more productive than people without disabilities.”

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on July 9, 2013.

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