Thailand is bringing an end to a famine. This may come as a surprise, but it is true.
It is not a typical famine, however – it is a ‘book famine’. This is a situation where people with ‘print disabilities’ have minimal access to books, textbooks and other print works in a format they can read due to conditions such as blindness, low-vision or paralysis. They therefore require ‘accessible formats’ such as braille, audio, e-books and large prints.
Thailand has recently acted to end the book famine. It has joined an international treaty called the ‘Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled’ (the Marrakesh Treaty). Thailand became a contracting party to the Treaty in January 2019, and today, on 28 April, it is coming into force.
The World Blind Union estimates that fewer than 10 percent of published books are ever made into formats that are accessible to people with print disabilities. In developing countries, the number falls to less than 1 percent. 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, people with disabilities who receive higher education is less than 1 percent, as compared with 16 percent for the general population. While Thailand has an excellent recent track record of keeping a low unemployment rate at around 1 percent for the general population, it jumps to 60 percent when it comes to persons with disabilities, although recent years have seen increasing government effort to improve the employment of persons with disabilities.
Not only do these disparities and exclusion prevent people with disabilities from maximizing their potential and living with dignity, they also cause significant losses to Thailand’s economy. According to a study by the International Labour Organization, economic losses associated with the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the labour market (which includes lower education as a factor) amounted to 0.69–4.6 percent of Thailand’s GDP in 2007. In other words, creating a disability-inclusive environment will produce enormous benefits for the economy and the country as a whole.
The Royal Government of Thailand understands the benefits of disability inclusion and continues to make international commitments to advancing the rights of persons 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 for the use by persons with print disabilities.
When the Treaty comes into effect in Thailand, ‘authorized entities,’ which usually include government agencies, libraries and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs), can create and share accessible format copies of legally-obtained copyright works without seeking the copyright owner’s consent. At the same time, the Treaty obliges authorized entities to protect the interest of copyright owners by, for example, ensuring that accessible format copies are to be used exclusively by persons with print disabilities.
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 will also be able to access large collections of accessible format copies available from all other party countries (nearly 80 and growing), including the US (from early next month), 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 Ministry of Commerce, which is the custodian of the Copyright Act, and the publishing industry. The Treaty will help transform prevailing perceptions associated with creating an enabling environment for persons with disabilities, from ones based on charity to human rights, and from financial burdens to investments with solid economic and social returns.
In the 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, where almost one in three people will be elderly, or 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 be replacing a land of book famine with a land of smiles, for all.
Renaud Meyer, UNDP Resident Representative
Monthian Buntan, a member of the National Legislative Assembly of the Royal Thai Parliament and a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Views expressed here do not reflect those of the Royal Thai Parliament nor the UN Committee).