Stevie Wonder Works toward Pro-Visually Impaired Global Copyright Laws

Children’s literacy is one of the most important issues facing us today. Fortunately, many groups, organizations, and individuals are dedicated to reversing the staggering statistics. However, as hard as people are working to get kids reading, there are some kids—such as the visually- impaired ones—who get left out.  Thanks to Stevie Wonder, though, visually-impaired literacy is getting some of the attention it deserves.

Stevie Wonder recently appeared before the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) of the United Nations urging for global copyright laws to be changed to the benefit of the 300 million print-reading-disabled global citizens, to whom millions of books are inaccessible to them as audiobooks due to the current copyright system.

According to the Huffington Post, the way the system is currently set up requires that many audiobook versions of the same work be produced, which carries a higher cost, the burden of which falls on the visually-impaired public. What’s more, some poor countries can’t even afford to make their own versions of works, so that they’re not available at all to their blind citizens.

Here is part of Wonder’s address, courtesy of The New Yorker:

“While I know that it is critical not to act to the detriment of the authors who labor to create the great works that enlighten and nourish our minds, hearts and souls, we must develop a protocol that allows the easy import and export of copyright materials so that people with print disabilities can join the mainstream of the literate world.”

“According to the AFP,” reports The New Yorker, “aides to Wonder said that just ‘five percent of printed materials and books are available in a readable form for the blind or visually impaired in industrialized nations, and just one percent in developing countries.’”   You may wonder, as I certainly did, how come such a small amount of books get translated into formats accessible to the visually-impaired, such as Braille and audiobooks. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker interviewed Paul Schroeder, the Vice President of Programs and Policy at the American Foundation for the Blind to find out more about this issue.

According to Shroeder, while several developed countries have different copyright laws allowing books to be reproduced in Braille, audio, and electronic or large print, the materials must fulfill two limitations, first that the books only go to those who are unable to read print books due to a disability, and secondly that the books are made by “specialized format producers who work with people with print-reading disabilities.”

In the U.S. the copyright provisions, also known as the Chafee provisions after former Senator Lincoln Chafee, allow these specialized producers to reproduce books in formats that are accessible to people with print-reading disabilities. A problem arises, however, with the fact that the provisions don’t allow for export outside the U.S., a law that other counties have in common with us.

According to Shroeder, “We definitely want to see a treaty or other mechanism that allows books to be shared across borders for use by people with print disabilities.” Stevie Wonder’s advocacy work is in alignment with this goal.

It’s an inspiration to see other artists working on behalf of children who aren’t typically represented in the children’s literacy issue.  After visiting with the bright children of Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf on my East Coast book tour, I released Danny the Dragon Meets Jimmy, the first book of my children’s book series, on DVD with a sign interpretation, and the profits are going to the causes of literacy and education. Now the DVD has been released by iStorytime, of Dreamworks and Shrek Forever After, as an app for the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad. I hope to see other artists and individuals follow in Stevie Wonder’s example by championing causes that are special to them, and I look forward to seeing progress in developing a global system whereby the millions of visually-impaired are able to enjoy the books we ourselves are lucky to have access to.

Tina Turbin


New Yorker: Stevie Wonder and Books for the Blind

Huffington Post: Stevie Wonder To UN: Ease Copyrights For The Blind

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