4 January 2022

Today—4 January 2022—we commemorate the 213th birthday of Louis Braille, the inventor of the tactile system many of us use as our prime literacy tool.

But in today’s era of advanced technology, social media options and possible information overload, many are still experiencing a “book famine”, a lack of access to hundreds of thousands of titles, just because we cannot agree on how to collaborate to get information to each and every person in the world. We humans are supposed to be the most evolved species on earth, certainly the brightest, and yet, after having finally agreed to the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled in 2013, implementation and true action is happening at a grindingly slow pace. The Treaty is meant to bring together authors, print disabled persons, and library and learning institutions from around the world to make print information available and accessible to all. It is a great step forward, but we now need more than awareness-raising and reliance on good will.

When young Louis Braille invented the braille code in 1824, I’m sure his thoughts at the time weren’t centred around a purist view of the right to access information, thus the right to read. He knew what he wanted and took action, took control of a dire situation instead of simply holding a hand out to receive charity. In those days, and sadly, in many places today, begging for charity is still the most basic way of “receiving help” in the community, even at the governmental level.

Awareness of our rights is great, and the United Nations and other structures and institutions should never underestimate the power of knowledge and awareness, but what we now need as never before is more action, for more of us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, for more of us to disrupt the current systems, intervene in the machinery of bureaucracy and play an innovative role.

The time is now for the United Nations and the World Intellectual Property  Organization (WIPO), working through its Accessible Books Consortium, to step up the pace, to accelerate the availability of educational, recreational and any other information source, for if knowledge is power and if the pen is mightier than the sword, the power of the word will be at the fingertips of us all.

We shouldn’t expect it to go swimmingly, however! During his lifetime, Louis Braille didn’t receive recognition for his amazing, enlightening invention—he actually got ridiculed for it, as is often and sadly the case when we do have disrupters, interveners and innovators among us. People fear change; just remember what happened in the pre-industrial era when the spinning wheel was invented.

Now is the time for the United Nations and similar entities to make funding and capacity-building support available so that more scientists and even ordinary people can invest time into developing creative solutions, whether in the fields of e-book readers, mobile apps, smart home options and so much more—solutions I can’t even imagine at present.

I don’t simply want to pay tribute to Louis Braille by remembering what he has done for us, but to challenge everyone to accelerate their efforts, as the work is not yet done. While I have access to at least five technological options for accessing information in Braille and synthesized speech, in the community of 253 million blind and low vision persons, so many still cannot make use of those tools, either because great opportunities and solutions are not affordable, or where they might actually be available at a limited cost, awareness of such availability hasn’t reached everyone. Knowledge of what governments, corporations and the United Nations can do to facilitate further access remains limited.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just what can happen when the science and medical fraternities collaborate with the corporate sector: never before have effective vaccines been developed so quickly. We have also proved to be resilient and flexible in getting on with life, which included utilizing e-solutions to meet with each other! Why can’t we do the same when it comes to access to information?

So, in conclusion, I still wish to say thank you, Louis Braille, not just for inventing your liberating code but also for challenging all of us to take up the responsibility of advancing access to literacy. 

 

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