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Assistive Accessibility & Audiobooks

Digital media are shrinking the accessibility divide, from the UK’s Publishers Association, to the US Capitol, and the UN Global Copyright discussions by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

An article in The Bookseller highlights the joint announcement by Britain’s The Publishers Association, The Society of Authors, The Association of Authors Agents and The Right to Read Alliance encouraging that text-to-speech be enabled on digital eBook devices. Victoria Barnsley, CEO and publisher of HarperCollins and president of the Publishers Association said:

“The widespread availability and increasing affordability of e-reading devices has brought these technologies into the reach of the mainstream market. The text to speech function on new e-readers, where the device will speak the text to the reader, offers a huge opportunity to those with print impairments to access all titles published digitally.”

Musical icon Stevie Wonder advocated for access to audiobooks at the UN  during a meeting of the WIPO Assemblies as he presented a “Declaration of Freedom for People with Disabilities.” Wonder said:

“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” he said. “There are many proposals on the table that will create a safe clearinghouse for the exchange and translation of books, please work towards a consensus.” The singer stressed that “your work and my work is not done”, and called on those present “to put ideological differences aside and come up with a practical solution.” He said, “I am respectfully asking you to join my declaration of freedom for the many print disabled and visually impaired by giving them the tools to think their way out of poverty and the darkness that is created when the mind does not have access to something as simple, but as powerful as a book.”

CBS News reported: “At issue is audiobooks. Currently, agencies for the blind in different countries can be required to make multiple audiobook versions of the same work, said Richard Owens, WIPO’s director of copyright and electronic commerce.
That leads to higher costs, which are passed on to listeners. It also limits access to audiobooks in poor countries, Owens said.
The U.N. agency has been trying for six years to revamp its global copyright framework so that it better accounts for new media, such as audiobooks. But the problem of access for such copyrighted material goes to the heart of a growing crisis in the world of copyright protection, as the internet increasingly muddies laws that were created for traditional media. Wide exceptions exist for books in Braille, but WIPO officials say there is confusion over how these benefits can be translated into the digital age.”

Here in the United States on October 8th, as reported by the White House, President Obama signed the Twenty-First Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act, in a ceremony attended by Stevie Wonder. President Obama stated:

“The bill I’m signing today into law will better ensure full participation in our democracy and our economy for Americans with disabilities.  The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind or live with a visual impairment to do what many of us take for granted — from navigating a TV or DVD menu to sending an email on a smart phone.  It sets new standards so that Americans with disabilities can take advantage of the technology our economy depends on.  And that’s especially important in today’s economy, when every worker needs the necessary skills to compete for the jobs of the future.”

Audiobooks have long been a key resource in addressing the needs of people with print or physical disabilities. It is critical that the shifting sands of digital rights build bridges, not widen the gap, of access for all.



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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