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Book Famine: How Policies in Nigeria Limit Access of Blind Persons to Books

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In Nigeria, existing copyright regulations prevent the adaptation of books into readable versions for the visually impaired. As a result, those who are visually impaired and others who live with print impairments have restricted access to books, resulting in a scenario coined “Book Famine.”

Omolola Afolabi captures their experiences…

Going through law school in Nigeria and graduating without a re-sit is usually considered a cause for euphoria among law students.

For people who have to experience the same system with one form of disability or another, it is never a walk in the park.

Barrister Kassim Lawal is visually impaired. Against all odds, he bagged his law degree from the University of Lagos, Akoka, in 2016. Following that, he enrolled in and waded through the arduous waters of Nigerian Law School, graduating with an enviable robe and a colorful motherboard.

Barrister Kassim Lawal in his office in Abuja

The journey, as expected, was herculean, but as tough as it was, Mr. Lawal, who is now 38, found it even tougher. The voluminous law books, the case notes, and several large-volume materials whose reading came at a price for even sighted colleagues were all studied by him.

“I had to record all my textbooks with the assistance of my classmates,” he said. “It didn’t matter the volume of the books; I got them captured on tape recorders and cassettes to listen to them later on.”

He noted that he couldn’t use braille at that level because it was bulky. He recalled soliciting the help of his sighted colleagues to use the library and submit assignments.

He said this was the same style he opted for during his studies at the Nigerian Law School, Bwari, Abuja.

The Solicitor at Yusuf O. Alli Chambers, Abuja, acknowledged that undergraduate students of Nigerian tertiary institutions go through extremely tough times studying as compared to pupils at the basic and secondary school levels, such as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) School for the Blind.

FCT School for The Blind, Jabi

Mr. Lawal, who is the Chairman of Lawyers with Disabilities, Abuja Chapter, explained that universities in Nigeria are neither inclusive nor specialized.

“Provisions are usually made for primary and secondary school pupils in terms of adapting books, unlike those at the tertiary level of education.”

For Mr. Lawal and numerous visually impaired students and professionals in Nigeria, the silver lining in the dark cloud would be the ratification, implementation, and enforcement of an international agreement that seeks to help end the global scarcity of books in Nigeria. It is called the Marrakesh Treaty.

“Braille is expensive and time-consuming.”

Grace Atewe is a current law student at the University of Lagos, and like Mr. Lawal, she holds great optimism about the prospects of the Marrakesh Treaty coming fully into effect.

She shared her experiences navigating through law school with the reporter.

“One of the major issues confronting people with visual impairment in Nigerian universities is the difficulty in accessing books for study.”

Miss Atewe, who is 27 years old, explained that a good number of law books and materials are available but only for sighted people.

“Getting access to those books and materials as a visually impaired or partially sighted person is a major hurdle.” Most of the time, these books are not put into electronic formats that blind people can access. “Like many of my other colleagues, we are at the mercy of our sighted colleagues,” she said.

Ms. Grace Atewe

Miss Atewe, now in her final year at the university, suggested that when the Marrakesh Treaty comes fully into use, law reports and other materials can be made in formats that can “talk” or be read in braille. She said this would significantly ease their struggle.

“When we want to get access to these materials, we can easily get them on the internet.”

“Getting those books in braille is extremely expensive, so all these hurdles should be looked into,” she urged.

“We are the ones who do all the conversion of books ourselves.” “We have to get these books, then go through the rigorous process of converting them into readable formats, and it takes a lot of time and money, and as struggling students, we can hardly afford these.”

The Costs and Figures

Checks by this reporter revealed that small-volume braille printers cost between $1,800 and $5,000, and large-volume ones cost between

Checks by this reporter revealed that small-volume braille printers cost between $1,800 and $5,000, and large-volume ones may cost between $10,000 and $80,000.

According to the international development organization Sightsavers, there are an estimated 24 million people with vision loss, with about 1.3 million becoming blind in the year 2020.

The Nigeria National Blindness and Visual Impairments Survey also reports that the northeastern part of the country has the highest prevalence of blindness at about 6.1%, while the southwest zone of the country has the lowest prevalence at about 2.8%.

Blindness and a lack of accessible book formats may be factors explaining why many visually impaired people in Nigeria do not go to school or outright drop out. In Jigawa State, north-east Nigeria, 66 pupils are formally registered at the Jigawa State School for the Blind, but only 10 show up for school. This is according to a report by Premium Times.

In its 2011 World Disability Report the World Health Organization identified inappropriate teaching materials and methods of assessment as one of the barriers to education for children with disabilities.

According to studies, braille is the most preferred source of information for people with visual impairments, with about 58.3% interested, followed by talking books (audiobooks) with about 38.2%, and only 3.4% rely on large print.

What is the Marrakesh Treaty, and what does its domestication mean for the print-disabled community in Nigeria?

The treaty was adopted in 2013 and signed in Marrakesh, Uganda, to facilitate access for people with print disabilities by removing barriers in national copyright laws that hinder the reproduction, distribution, and sharing of books in accessible formats for use by people with print disabilities.

The treaty has been ratified by 23 African countries, and Nigeria is a signatory to it.

Administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, it promotes the development of accessible formats that begin after the source publication is released to the market; once all legal requirements for transforming the source publication into an accessible publication are met, an alternative format of a book in braille or large print is frequently made available much later than the release of the print book.

The Marrakesh Treaty is a direct response to the Sustainable Development Goals call to “leave no one behind,” as it recognizes that one of the factors that consistently recur when discussing quality education for people with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairment, is the availability of educational materials in formats they can use.

Mr. Lawal, who is also the Secretary General of the Joint Association of Persons with Disabilities, Abuja Chapter, told this reporter that although there are existing copyright laws that make provision for the creation of books in braille, there is still a very small amount of books in braille and other readable formats.

“What the Marrakesh Treaty seeks to do is empower the beneficiaries (the blind and print-disabled individuals).”

It is widely acknowledged by the blind community that braille is not the only accessible format for the blind. There are electronic formats (either word documents or electronic publications (epub). There are braille, large print, talking books or audiobooks, ebooks, and tactile graphics.

However, it is important to note that some of the alternate formats mentioned above may be suitable or easy to use for a particular disability only. For example, a person with dyslexia may not prefer a book in braille, and persons with low vision may not use an audiobook as it omits all pictures and text.

Literacy Level of Blind Persons in Nigeria

“Literacy is quite high among adults with visual impairments, as many members of our disability associations are learned professionals; we have lawyers, journalists, artists, and all,” Mr. Lawal revealed.

“However, it could be better because, prior to the Marrakesh Treaty, we had our own way of reading and writing, so in most of our schools, printed copies of novels and other reading (educational) materials are frequently converted into braille format, but outside of school for leisure and work purposes, that is where the Book Famine has impacted us.”

This is because persons with visual impairments have different needs in terms of reading. Some blind persons cannot read braille due to factors like old age, some people’s sensitivity is not sharp enough to identify the tactile dots, and some other persons are better at listening to the audio versions of the braille.

What would full Domestication and Enforcement mean for the Blind Community in Nigeria?

John Assein, the Director General of the Nigerian Copyrights Commission, said the process of ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty in Nigeria has now passed the concurrence stage and has reached the presidential assent stage, which is the final stage before it finally becomes law and binding.

Mr. Assign told the reporter in his office that he has been meeting with the leadership of the National Association of the Blind and other relevant groups to ensure they are carried along.

 Director General, Nigerian Copyright Commission, Mr. John Assien addresses the reporter in his office in Abuja.

The domestication of the treaty would mean more books in accessible formats. The needs of people with visual impairments would be met, assisting in significantly increasing the literacy level of blind people. People with visual impairments can also walk into any of the authorized entities instead of waiting for years to have some of these books in accessible formats. So it would appear as if a blind person entered a regular bookstore.

The process for the domestication of the treaty is at its last stage. The provisions of the treaty have been incorporated into the revised Copyrights Amendment Bill, which has been passed by both chambers of the National Assembly and is awaiting presidential assent.

We are hopeful that before the year runs out or before the end of this current administration, it comes into effect.

According to the Marrakesh Treaty Advocacy Course, the right to literacy is a fundamental human right for all persons, and it should include reading books for education and leisure.

Visually Impaired People Can’t Study for Leisure

Mr. Lawal told SMI and WR that the enforcement of the treaty would mean more books in accessible formats for the visually impaired.

“I can go get books by Soyinka or Achebe. It would mean I don’t have to get the books first; I could go to Lagos to get them in braille. People with visual impairments would have a level playing field for a person with disabilities to be able to access books the same way sighted people would be able to access them.

“The bill provides for authorized entities, which can either be government-owned or private establishments, that will be licensed to produce these books in accessible formats and would have the criteria for producing these books in accessible formats,” he said.

Martin Kieti, who works at Inclusion Resources for Africa in Kenya, noted that the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty and its implementation in national law do not necessarily guarantee the enjoyment of the right to read by people with print disabilities.

“It is a well-known fact that, in many African countries, international treaties have been ratified, national laws have been enacted or revised, and policies have been developed, but their implementation has not been fully realized.

“The poor implementation of such treaties, laws, and policies has been attributed to, among other reasons, a lack of resources, political goodwill, and legal remedies and mechanisms to enforce the provisions of such treaties, laws, and policies.”

He said that for people with print disabilities to enjoy their right to read and access information through the increased availability of accessible books, the Marrakesh Treaty must be realized not only on paper but also in practice.

This investigation is produced by Safer-Media Initiative under The Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusivity and Accountability Project (C-MEDIA Project) of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

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