MEPs back calls for international treaty on accessible books

A decision by MEPs to back calls for an international treaty that would make more books available in accessible formats has increased pressure on EU leaders to reverse their opposition to such an agreement.

Campaigners say that millions of blind EU citizens – and others with impairments such as dyslexia – face a “book famine”, with only about five per cent of books ever converted into formats such as Braille, large print or audio.

The European Blind Union (EBU) has campaigned for years for a binding international treaty – through the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) – that would ease the problem by allowing charities to make and distribute books in accessible formats and share them between countries.

Most WIPO member states support such a treaty, with a draft version that has been drawn up by the World Blind Union due to be discussed by a WIPO committee in Geneva next month.

The European Commission – the European Union’s executive body – and the leaders of its member states – the European Council – have so far opposed such a binding treaty and instead favour recommendations and voluntary licenses.

But members of the European Parliament have now agreed a resolution that calls on the commission to agree a WIPO treaty.

The resolution also reminds the European Commission and EU members of their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats”.

The resolution comes only weeks after the EBU co-hosted an event in the European Parliament to highlight the opposition of the commission and member states to the treaty.

Lord [Colin] Low, president of the EBU, said: “I am delighted that the parliament has so clearly demonstrated its support for a binding law at WIPO.

“I urge the council and commission, which negotiate on this matter, to listen to the parliament, which speaks for the EU’s citizens, and support a binding treaty when they go to Geneva this June.”

No-one from the European Commission was available to comment.

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Agreement with EU publishers could help sharing of accessible books

European publishers and disability organisations have signed an agreement that could help convert more books into accessible formats.

The agreement aims to help ease the “book famine” faced by those who are “print-disabled” – blind, partially-sighted and dyslexic people – in which only about five per cent of books are ever converted into accessible formats such as large print, audio or Braille.

The “memorandum of understanding” was signed this week by the Federation of European Publishers, the European Blind Union (EBU) and the European Dyslexia Association, who were brought together by the European Commission (EC).

Although it will not be legally binding, the document describes the circumstances in which publishers will allow disability organisations to share their stocks of accessible books across the EU.

Most of the few books that are currently made accessible are produced by RNIB in the UK and other charities such as ONCE in Spain.

Lord [Colin] Low, president of the EBU, said the signing of the memorandum of understanding was the start of an “important project”, and added: “We need and welcome publisher help to tackle the ‘book famine’.”

Dan Pescod, international campaigns manager for RNIB, said the ideal solution would be for publishers to publish more books in accessible formats, but that “isn’t likely to happen in the near future”.

Although the agreement sets a helpful precedent, he said it was unlikely to have a huge impact on print-disabled people in Britain as there were no other EU countries mass-producing English-language books.

He also said it would be important to monitor the impact of the agreement, but stressed there was also a need for a “proper legal framework” through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN agency.

RNIB, EBU and other campaigning groups want a worldwide WIPO treaty on sharing accessible books.

Michel Barnier, the EC’s commissioner for the internal market and services, presided over the signing in Brussels.

The commission described the signing of the memorandum as an “important and concrete step” in increasing the number of accessible books, and said “noticeable increases in cross-border distribution” should be possible within a year.

Barnier said: “Today’s agreement shows what Europe truly stands for: an internal market that not only promotes culture but also caters for the needs of people with special needs or disabilities.”

News provided by John Pring at