I have written the letter shown below to President Obama. Thanks to Alena Roberts, Kelly Ford and Milica Trpevska for their assistance in the editing of this letter through three revisions. I am asking all my American readers to send a similar letter to president@whitehouse.gov to show support for an international treaty that would expand the copyright exemptions we enjoy in the United States to the blind and other people with print reading disabilities in the rest of the world. If you are not an American citizen, please write a similar supportive letter to your nation’s prime minister or other appropriate political leaders.

May 30, 2009

Dear Mr. President:

As a blind American, I am writing to ask you for your help in order to expand our limited access to printed books. Specifically, I would like you to direct your representatives on the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights in the World Intellectual Property Organization to fully support the treaty on copyright exceptions for visually impaired persons.

In the United States, Blind Americans currently enjoy the highest level of accessibility to books in the entire world! The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped provides tens of thousands of books as audio recordings. Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic provides thousands more books in recorded form primarily to K-12 and college students with reading disabilities. Finally, a project called Bookshare delivers access to more than 50,000 copyrighted books in an electronic format we can read with our Braille displays and on our talking computers in a manner that is most similar to the way sighted people are automatically able to read. All of this is possible by way of an exemption we enjoy in our copyright laws called 17 USC Section 121 that allows certain authorized organizations to make books accessible to us without the constant need to obtain written permission from publishers.

In contrast with the specialized nonprofit organizations (authorized entities in copyright law) that work with us to adapt reading material, the marketplace has continued to fail the blind despite ongoing advocacy. I am willing to purchase books in the same way as our sighted peers, so long as I am able to read them in an accessible format. Almost without exception, however, authors and publishers have been unwilling to work with the blind on a voluntary basis and have vigorously resisted all the legislative gains we have made to force their compliance.

Many electronic books are now sold for reading only on Amazon’s Kindle book reader. The Kindle is inaccessible to the blind, Amazon has made no plans to rectify the issue and no software exists to convert the books to an accessible format. Even the most recent revision of the reader, the Kindle II, contains voice output, but remains completely unusable by a blind person. Further, the Author’s Guild is working against people with disabilities by advocating publishers disable voice output on Kindle books and making statements about audio books that could hamper the expansion of accessibility. One major publisher, Random House, is selling their Kindle electronic books with the text-to-speech feature disabled. Even if the Kindle were to become accessible to the blind, many books sold in that format would remain unreadable by blind customers. Other books are sold in equally inaccessible formats that employ security features specifically designed to disable our specialized screen reading software. As long as the marketplace continues to ignore our need for equal access, I am asking you to intervene in ways that support our efforts to adapt information so that it is readable by those of us with print disabilities.

American accessibility projects like NLS, RFB&D and Bookshare represent an attempt by our own community to essentially make our own accessibility. Hundreds of Bookshare volunteers acquire, scan and convert books into a specialized accessible format known as DAISY. NLS readers and RFB&D volunteers verbally read books for distribution as digital audio recordings in another subset of the specialized DAISY standard. In all three cases, the blind and others with reading disabilities must prove eligibility in order to receive access to copyrighted books through these authorized organizations. This level of access to books really makes a positive difference for blind Americans who wish to learn, work and participate in all aspects of our society on terms of equality with the sighted.

Alena Roberts knows firsthand what a difference accessible books can make in the life of a blind person. A graduate of the University of Oregon, she struggled with the lack of accessible textbooks. “In college, if my required books were not available at RFB&D, my university had to do the recordings, which meant in a lot of cases that I only got to read the pages that my professor required,” Roberts says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to book reviews on the radio just to find that they’re not available in an accessible format.”

Recent advancements in the accessibility of books have opened the world for Alena and tens of thousands of blind Americans. “For me personally, having access to books means that I get to read what I want to read more often,” says Roberts.

Despite this level of accessibility, most published books continue to be outside our reach. Many are still found only in print while the vast majority of electronic books are delivered in formats that are incompatible with our screen reading software. Internationally, the World Blind Union says that people with print reading disabilities are granted access to less than five percent of all reading material available to the sighted. I believe that, were your closest friends and relatives locked out of 95 percent of the world’s books, you and Michelle would be insisting on change now. I am certain you are sensitive to the need for equal access for blind people everywhere.

In comparison to the American experience of people like myself and Alena Roberts, Milica Trpevska, a journalism student from Macedonia attending American University at Bulgaria, lives in the dark ages with respect to the unavailability of accessible books. Many of the textbooks required in her classes are made accessible in the United States, but copyright laws prohibit her from acquiring and reading them simply due to her location. An accessible copy of a book that is available to blind Americans for the cost and time of a download over the Internet requires hundreds of hours of work by herself and one or more sighted people in order for Milica to be able to access the same content her sighted peers can read without a thought. In addition, Milica has scanned hundreds of books over the years that she is unable to contribute to accessibility efforts like Bookshare due to the same restrictions currently imposed by international copyright law. Your full support of an international copyright exemption for people with print reading disabilities would open many doors for deserving people like Milica while further increasing the amount of printed material accessible to blind Americans.

It is time for positive change in the availability of reading material for the blind and others with print disabilities. I am asking you to help make the resources we already enjoy here in the United States available to the rest of the world. Doing this would serve to increase accessibility not only for people with print disabilities outside our nation, but it would also foster full international participation in our efforts to increase our access to the world of reading. Duplication of efforts would be eliminated and organizations in other countries would finally be able to deliver to us new books not yet made accessible here in America.

As a blind person who relies on the ability to read the same material enjoyed by my sighted peers in order to learn and to work as a productive member of society, I am asking for nothing less than equality of opportunity. If a copyright exemption is good enough for us here in the United States, then it is good enough for the rest of the world. Please work to expand the letter and spirit of 17 USC Section 121 to the rest of the world through the WIPO treaty by directing America’s delegates to avoid delay by prioritizing the needs of people with disabilities, actively demonstrating this stance to authors, publishers and the rest of the world and approving the treaty every time it comes up for a vote.


Darrell Shandrow

Accessibility Evangelist