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Lawyers get socially involved: The Right to Read

right-to-read-campaign
right-to-read-campaign
"Imagine life without books, without having anything to read. Wouldn't it get suffocating?" asks Moiz Tundawala, a visually impaired student at NUJS Kolkata.

A number of engaged lawyers have been working hard to address the suffocation by trying to make books accessible to all in the Right to Read campaign.

"Just place yourself in the shoes of the print disabled and try evaluating," posits Tundawala. "Why deprive them of a fair opportunity to participate in society especially when you have the technology to make things easier?"

By contrast the situation as it stands today in India is simple: if you can not read printed text for whatever reason, most books will remain forever closed to you.

Pesky laws
And while technology is making headway towards accessibility it stumbles upon myriad legal roadblocks.

The biggest spoilsport is the India Copyright Act, which does not explicitly permit the conversion of books into accessible formats without breaching their copyrights.

Three organisations active in the field have now joined hands to launch the Right to Read campaign in India, following the eponymous global campaign by the World Blind Union. The Indian campaign is supported by social enterprise Inclusive Planet with its first product BookBolé, the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) and the non-profit organisation Daisy Forum of India.

And throughout lawyers have been vital in getting the campaign off the ground.

"We believe that the right to read is a fundamental right and persons with disabilities should be able to enjoy this right just like any other person," says CIS programme manager Nirmita Narasimhan. She is an LLB graduate of Campus Law Centre, Delhi University and has years of experience in working in the courts and with intellectual property (IP).

"Nearly 70 million print disabled Indians are being deprived of this right because they are unable to read in the same manner as other persons," she continues. "This goes against our constitutional guarantees of rights to equality and non-discrimination."

The movement does not restrict itself to the blind and visually impaired and the Right to Read campaigners are quick to point out that the term print disabled is a wider term and includes persons who have dyslexia, learning disabilities and persons who due to physical disability are unable to hold books or turn pages.

The campaign therefore aspires to reach to all those who do not have access to knowledge due to the non-availability of books in accessible formats.

Technology's outer limits

Inclusive Planet's co-founder and policy head Rahul Cherian is also the founder and managing partner of IndoJuris Law Offices.

He and Narasimhan co-wrote a letter to the IPR Division of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

In it they explained why formats like audio files and Braille cannot fully address the issue of accessibility and what should be done about it.

"Audio files have to be played serially and navigation is severely limited. In the case of Braille, the printing costs are expensive and reading a Braille book is up to 4 times slower than a normal book," they wrote.

"Moreover, Braille is extremely difficult to learn if you lose sight at a later age, and persons using Braille can communicate only with others who know Braille. Braille cannot be used by persons with other print impairments such as dyslexia or persons with physical disabilities".

Perhaps more innovative technologies are necessary but technology also has some serious limitations, such as not being able to cater to India's multilingual needs, points out Narasimhan.

Tundawala's first-hand experience with technology is instructive.

"Audio brings in the human element," he says, "but a lot depends on the reader. Some are naturally good readers, some others are not. Listening to monotonous voices is not at all enjoyable."

Cost is a big hurdle too. "A wonderful device that is in the markets in places like the US is the portable reader. It is a hand held device and comes with a camera with OCR (Optical Charachter Recognition) and TTS (Text To Speech) installed on it. How I wish to get hold of it. But this comes at a whopping two thousand dollars", says Tundawala.

Even screen reading software that converts the text on screen to speech such as JAWS for Windows comes at a mind-boggling fifty thousand rupees.

The co-founder and CEO of Inclusive Planet Sachin Malhan, who is perhaps best-known for starting up the CLAT preparation service Law School Tutorials after a stint in a law firm, defends technology.

"Any large solution will have imperfections," says Malhan, "but one must keep in mind how small these obstacles are when compared with the opportunities."

Being Good: the subtle art of Dharma
Issues of cost and accessibility are serious. Inclusive Planet, which is run as a for-profit social organisation, will face the challenge of making its first product BookBolé pay for itself.

Cherian is optimistic. "The cost of printing, stocking and distributing books which is huge in regular books is virtually nil in our model," he says.

"We are in the process of convincing a few publishers about the possibility of tapping into the needs of the millions in need of books in accessible formats. The World Blind Union has given the phrase 'Same day. Same price' for books to be made available to the print disabled and we want to live up to it."

And going by the magnitude of response BookBolé has been able to generate it already sounds like a success story.

Cherian told Legally India that Inclusive Planet has five new products and projects lined up for the disabled. Two among these will cater exclusively to needs of the visually impaired and according to Cherian will truly revolutionize the ecosystem for the visually impaired, making their world happier and more inclusive.

Tundawala, however, disagrees with this approach and argues: "If we start selling technology through the market mechanism, it may not serve the needs of the vast multitude."

Legal Samaritans
The Right to Read has journeyed well and is picking up momentum with legal activists forming the vanguard.

"The prominent people behind our freedom struggle were lawyers so the legal community owes a special responsibility in this case to help bring about a change for the better," insists Tundawala. "Their support will give a sense of hope to millions of individuals that the people who know the law empathise with them and think the way they do about this problem."

For Cherian help from the corporate sector has made life easier. "None of this would have been possible without the collaboration of corporate lawyers. Corporate lawyers have helped in the legal research and strategy."

Delhi Chalo!
The Indian campaign, which was launched in September, is also closely allied to the global debate and involves many issues and organisations.

"We are actively involved in The Treaty for the Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled presently tabled before the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) at the WIPO and are working with the World Blind Union to help from an India level," explains Nirmita.

She adds that earlier this month they also organised a meeting with the Director General of WIPO in Delhi and submitted a statement document on behalf of the Indian visually impaired community.

And the Right to Read, explains Cherian, will soon be taken up to India's Human Resources Development (HRD) minister Kapil Sibal.

"We plan to organise 4 more road shows in different cities, culminating with a large event in Delhi," he says.

"We will also be submitting a research paper to the HRD Ministry on the constitutional, domestic and international law compulsions that require the amendment of the copyright act for the benefit of persons with disability."

Sign the declaration and express your support at the Right to Read campaign website. If you needed any other incentive, today is World Disability Day.

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