Thailand is bringing an end to a famine.
This is not a typical famine, however, but a “book famine”. This is a situation where people with “print disabilities” have minimal access to books, textbooks and other print materials in a format they can read due to conditions such as blindness, poor vision or paralysis. They therefore require accessible formats such as braille, audio, ebooks and large print.
Thailand has recently acted to end the book famine by joining the international Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled”.
The Marrakesh Treaty came into force two weeks ago.
The World Blind Union estimates that less than 10 per cent of published books are published in formats accessible to people with print disabilities. In developing countries, that number falls to less than 1 per cent. This lack of accessible formats is a violation of their right to information and knowledge. It prevents them from receiving an adequate education, getting a decent job, appreciating culture and fully participating in society.
In Thailand, statistics show that people with disabilities are being left behind. For example, less than 1 per cent of people with disabilities receive higher education, as compared with 16 per cent for the general population. While Thailand has a very low unemployment rate of around 1 per cent for the general population, it jumps to 60 per cent for people with disabilities, although recent years have seen increasing government efforts to improve their employment opportunities.
Not only do these disparities and exclusion prevent people with disabilities from maximising their potential and living with dignity, they also cause significant losses to Thailand’s economy. Exclusion of people with disabilities from the labour market (which includes lower education as a factor) cost Thailand 4.6 per cent of its GDP, according to a 2007 study by the International Labour Organisation,
In other words, creating a disability-inclusive environment will produce enormous benefits for the economy and the country as a whole.
The Thai government understands the benefits of disability inclusion and continues to make international commitments to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. Recent examples include Thailand’s accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 (the first and only Asean member state to join so far), as well as the accession to the Marrakesh Treaty this year. These reflect Thailand’s commitment to the principles of “leaving no one behind” and “reaching the furthest behind first” that underpin the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals (SDGs).
The Marrakesh Treaty was adopted in 2013 to end the book famine by creating international legal frameworks on copyright exceptions and limitations. The Treaty makes it legally easier to produce and share accessible-format copies of copyright works both within and across borders.
“Authorised entities”, which include government agencies, libraries and disabled people’s organisations, can create and share accessible format copies of legally-obtained works without seeking the copyright owner’s consent.
The Marrakesh Treaty will improve equal access to knowledge and information in Thailand by expanding a national collection of accessible format copies and its availability and reach. It can help build a virtual library for people with print disabilities where they can access books, textbooks, journals and other published works in accessible formats, just as the general population can go to school or public libraries to read and borrow books.
Under the Marrakesh Treaty, Thailand can also access large collections of accessible format copies available from all other party countries (nearly 80 and growing), including the US (from early May), the European Union and Japan. It can expand educational, career or cultural opportunities for persons with print disabilities ranging from those who study foreign languages or literature to those who seek the latest scientific knowledge.
Finally, the Marrakesh Treaty contributes to strengthening Thailand’s disability response by engaging new, non-traditional disability stakeholders including the Commerce Ministry, which is the custodian of the Copyright Act, and the publishing industry. The Treaty will help transform perceptions on creating an enabling environment for persons with disabilities, from those based on charity to human rights, and from financial burdens to investments with solid economic and social returns.
In our era of population ageing with an associated higher risk for developing a print disability, anyone could potentially become a beneficiary of the Treaty. Thailand is projected to become a super-aged society in 2031, when almost one in three people will over the age of 60.
Thailand’s timely membership in the Marrakesh Treaty is to be celebrated. However, the extent of government, public and industry support in its implementation will ultimately judge if Thailand will swap its land of book famine for a land of smiles, for all.
Renaud Meyer is UNDP Resident Representative to Thailand.
Monthian Buntan sits in the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (Views expressed here are the authors’ own.)