India publishes approximately 90,000 books each year in 24 different languages. We have over 16,000 publishers, and are one of the top nations for English book publishing in the world. Clearly we are a nation which values and fosters a culture of reading and passing on knowledge in different domains ranging from literature, to yoga, language, education, science, fiction and many others. We are also the world's second most populous nation with an extremely large population with disabilities, including persons with print impairments. However, the total number of books accessible to the print impaired in India is only 19,000, a fraction of what is available yearly to the general public. How is it that despite our prowess in publishing and technology, persons with print impairments in India remain deprived of access to books and other forms of information which are key to an inclusive and fulfilling life?
There are presently approximately 19,000 books converted till date, a pathetic contrast to the 90,000 books published just in India every year.
Before going further into this question, let us understand the term "print disability". Very broadly, print-impaired persons are those who cannot access printed material due to some form of disability, such as blindness or low vision, dyslexia, autism etc. For these persons to be able to read, the material needs to be converted into some other format such as Braille or accessible electronic formats which can be read using some assistive device like a screen reader or e-book reader, fitted in a laptop, mobile or stand alone device. For assistive technology to be able to read the content, it needs to conform to universal standards such as Unicode for Indic font or EPUB 3.0.
Until 2012, one of the biggest hurdles to access printed content for the print-disabled was the fact that they had to obtain permission from the copyright holder of the work, every time they wanted to convert a book into audio/ Braille/ other formats. This was often unsuccessful, time consuming and required resources beyond the means of most blindness organizations, who could convert only a bare minimum of books, mostly excerpts from school text books for their readers. After over a decade of sustained advocacy, the Government included section 52 (1)(zb) in the Indian Copyright Act, a fair use exception which permitted conversion of copyrighted works into any accessible format for the benefit of a person with a disability on a non-profit basis. For profit, conversion is permitted on certain terms. This considerably opened up the world of books for persons with print impairments in India. In September 2016, the Marrakesh Treaty for the Visually Impaired also came into force, which means that cross-border sharing of accessible books can happen between countries which have ratified the Treaty.
However, despite these measures, the availability of books remains abysmal. While the legal issues have been sorted out to a large extent, the practical situation is harder to deal with and there are significant hurdles in creation and dissemination as well as equipping users to read accessible books.
Firstly, organizations serving the print-impaired do not have the bandwidth to undertake large scale conversions of each and every book that gets published. At present, organizations have to spend considerable time and resources converting content into an accessible electronic format before they can make it available to end users. Consider this, the cost of typing out one page of a regional language like Telugu is approximately ₹30 So it would cost ₹3000 to type out a 100-page Telugu book, in addition to the price already paid to purchase the book. Apart from the unaffordability, the lack of equipment and personnel necessitates conversion being carried out in a very limited manner and mostly for books which are critical for studies and in high demand, since state boards do not provide accessible versions of school text books.
The simplest way to address accessible book creation would be for publishers to adopt EPUB 3.0 and ensure that books are "born accessible"...
While the Daisy Forum of India, along with the Government of India recently opened an online accessible digital library called the Sugamya Pustakalaya, it needs to be populated with accessible content. There are presently approximately 19,000 books converted till date, a pathetic contrast to the 90,000 books published just in India every year. Even international organizations such as Bookshare which have been expending millions to convert books in different countries have only succeeded in making 500,000 accessible books available in all, and these too are not equally available to persons in every country due to copyright issues.
The other challenge is to equip each and every print-impaired person with a device such as a laptop or mobile phone on which he/ she can read and work with the book. Of course, merely providing devices is pointless—appropriate training in how to use them is essential.
There are also issues of inadequate distribution networks to reach out to print impaired persons in urban and remote parts of India, which still need to be addressed.
Apart from the challenges specific to creating and disseminating accessible books, other digitization activities can also add to the problem. For instance, the Digital Library of India project, a spectacular effort to digitize books of all genres, is said to have a library of 550,603 books including several really old manuscripts and historical books. However, all of these are scanned and saved as inaccessible image files, rendering them of no use to the print-impaired.
Another problem is in the case of Indian language content which is often created in a nonUnicode font, making it unreadable for persons using screen readers.
How can we improve the situation?
The simplest way to address accessible book creation would be for publishers to adopt EPUB 3.0 and ensure that books are "born accessible" since they anyway produce a digital file of a book before bringing it out in print. This would obviate the entire cost, time and effort spent on conversion. Also, selling accessible e-versions to the print impaired could be a huge business opportunity for publishers, considering the large market for such books in India and globally. More information on this can be obtained from Accessible Book Consortium or by writing to BookShare.
We also need to ensure all digitization activities consider accessibility requirements and create resources that conform to accessibility standards.
We have the law, the technology, the books and the people, but need a concerted effort from multiple stakeholders... to bring all of these together.
On the technology front, an NGO-driven project over the past four years has now made text to speech available for several Indian languages using the open source text to speech engine e-Speak, which works with both laptops and Android phones. The government, with institutions like the IIT, is also driving initiatives to develop text to speech and optical character recognition (OCR) software for Indian languages. However, there is some way to go before these become available to end users.
To sum up, we have the law, we have the technology, the books and the people, but need a concerted effort from multiple stakeholders—the government, publishers, educational institutions and NGOs—to bring all of these together, so that every print-impaired person in India can enjoy the right to read.