Meera Nair

from Braille to Mehta

In Posts on April 19, 2013 at 10:01 pm

“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”
– Louis Braille (1809-1852), 1841 — quoted by Clifford E. Olstrom — Undaunted by Blindness.

“In India, one of the poorest countries the world has ever known, the lot of the blind was to beg with a walking stick in one hand and an alms bowl in the other. Hindus consider blindness a punishment for sins committed in a previous incarnation. But my father, a doctor, tried to fight the superstition and give me an education, like his other children, so that I could become, as he used to say, a self-supporting citizen of the world.”
– Ved Mehta (1934-), 1985  Sightless in a Sighted World.

James Love, writing for Knowledge Ecology International, gives the disappointing news that even the modest progress made in reaching a treaty for better access to copyrighted materials for the blind, is now a thing of the past. Publishers’ groups are “demanding that the Obama Administration push new global standards for technical protection measures, strip the treaty text of any reference to fair use and fair dealing, and impose new financial liabilities on libraries that serve blind people.” Under these terms, such a treaty will hardly be worth the paper it is written on.

No-one ought deny publishers’ legitimate market growth or expansion, but the publishing community has long since acknowledged that they have little interest in the small market of materials for the visually disabled. To put it crassly, there are not enough wealthy blind people out there. According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), which works in concert with the World Health Organization, “… about 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision (severe or moderate visual impairment).”  And, “about 90% of the world’s visually impaired people live in developing countries.”

Ved Mehta is an iconic writer from India. Like my parents, he straddled the end of the British Raj and the emergence of a new India (with all the bloodletting of Britain’s legacy known as Partition.) That he achieved acclaim in the West made his story that much more compelling to those of us who encountered his work before Canada was the multicultural haven we speak of today. Reading the autobiographical entry from his official website though, I could not help but think something was missing:

Before I turned five, [my father] sent me to what he had heard was the country’s best school for the blind, in Bombay, 1,300 miles away from our home, in the Punjab. It proved to be, like the score or so of other such schools in the country, an orphanage cum asylum. I spent a total of three years there, sick a good part of the time, and then was returned home because the school had nothing more to teach me.

The story as told to me by my mother was that Ved Mehta’s father insisted on removing him from that school, or possibly an earlier school. Reason being, the students were being taught only to weave rattan furniture for prospective means of livelihood. Visiting his son, Dr. Mehta saw the reality of a weaver’s life: calloused fingertips. His son would not be able to read Braille. And so ended that assay into schooling, available in India. Later Mehta was accepted into a school for the blind in the United States:

My father raised the necessary money, and I flew there alone when I was 15. I was finally on the road to a formal education. In due course, with the help of many scholarships, I earned a B.A. from Pomona College, in California, a B.A. from Balliol College, Oxford, and an M.A. from Harvard. While I was still a student, I started writing for The New Yorker.

Mehta describes the Social Adjustment program at his school:

“To be blind is an uphill struggle,” Mr. Chiles observed … He was almost totally blind himself. “You’ve got to sell yourself to every sighted person. You’ve got to show him that you can do things that he thinks you can’t possibly do. … Anything you do wrong in the sighted world, … like dressing untidily or putting your elbows on the table while eating, sighted people will chalk up to your blindness, even if most of them commit those sins themselves. They will call you poor wretches, feel sorry for you, and, to my way of thinking, commit the worst sin of all; excuse it on the ground that you’re blind.”

Like Louis Braille, Mehta had devoted parents who did all that was humanly possible to ensure that their son had a fair chance in life. But such families are rare in developing countries. When a family itself is struggling, the disabled inevitably is sidelined. Moreover, the social stigma of disability is not easily overcome under such circumstances.

Imagining the challenges of the disabled in a first world country is daunting enough; to stretch one’s imagination to disability in developing countries seems an impossibility. At least so for the publishing sector.

Update — April 23: The Huffington Post has published a detailed report by James Love on the degradation of the treaty. Love also sheds greater light on why the MPAA has become such a vociferous opponent of the treaty, even after having ensured that audio visual works were removed from the scope (thereby excluding the deaf and hard-of-hearing from any benefit.)

Update — April 24:  The Huffington Post has published a rebuttal from Chris Dodd, Chairman and CEO, Motion Picture Association of America. In contrast to Love’s detailed analysis, Dodd confines his remarks to speaking in generalities. According to Dodd, some “… groups have advocated for the inclusion of certain provisions that would establish lower thresholds for copyright protection and weaken certain means used for protecting copyright works.”  As Love details, the World Blind Union and those who actively believe in this treaty, wished for a treaty that “does not change the larger, global copyright system.”  Whereas the publishing community has sought to instill more complexity in the treatment of the exceptions necessary for a better sharing of copyrighted works, for visually disabled people around the world.  Which is (was?) the point of the treaty itself.

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