Special Rapporteur Calls on African States to Ensure Access to Information for the Visually Impaired

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Lawrence Mute Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute.
Lawrence Mute
Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute.

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, by Commissioner Lawrence Mute, has called on all African states take steps to ensure access to information for the visually impaired and other print disabled persons.

Joining the rest of the world to celebrate the Human Rights Day, on December 10, 2018, the Special Rapporteur urged African governments to eradicate the book famine for visually impaired and other print disabled persons, including by becoming party to the Disabilities Rights Protocol as well as the Marrakesh Treaty, and by implementing the letter and spirit of these instruments.

He called on African governments to leave no one behind by breaking down information barriers and giving everyone the right to equal opportunities adding “Children with visual impairments or with other print disabilities should not be denied the right to access information. They should be able to compete fairly in school and have access to material they can use for research, despite their disabilities.”

Reiterating the axiom that says knowledge is power, he said power should be shared through making works available in accessible formats for persons with disabilities, adding “Everyone has the right to access information.”

The Special Rapporteur made the call through a statement he issued to join the rest of the world to welcome the global observance of the 70th anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Special Rapporteur used the occasion to welcome the adoption in January 2018, by the African Union Assembly, of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa (the Persons with Disabilities Rights Protocol), in addition to the adoption in 2013 of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled (‘Marrakesh Treaty’).

The Special rapporteur pointed out that in spite of previous guarantees of the right to information under various regional and international human rights instruments, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UDHR itself, “it is estimated that one billion persons with disabilities face various barriers in their day-to-day lives around the globe, and that one such barrier is access to information.”

He added that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has laid further emphasis on, and sought to protect the right of persons with disabilities to access information.

Commissioner Mute pointed out that the right of access to information is yet to be fully realised by persons with disabilities, adding that those with visual impairments, face distinct barriers due to the unavailability of reading material in accessible formats.

Quoting data to support his claims, he said: “According to the World Blind Union, over 90% of all published materials are inaccessible to blind or print-disabled persons, who consequently face a book famine since only approximately 7% of published books are made available in accessible formats such as Braille, audio and large print.”

To make matters worse, he noted that the World Blind Union report says less than 1% of published books are accessible in the developing world, despite the fact that the majority of persons with visual impairments, or with other print disabilities, live in developing and least-developed countries.

Listing and expatiating on the international instruments that guarantee persons with disabilities the right of access to information, he said the Persons with Disabilities Rights Protocol provides that every person with disability has the right to access information, adding: “It requires States to ensure that persons with visual impairments or other print disabilities have effective access to published works, including by using information and communication technologies.”

On a related note, he pointed out that the Marrakesh Treaty was adopted in a bid to establish normative standards for ensuring access to information by persons with print disabilities. He noted that the Treaty recognises the continuing shortage of available works in accessible format copies for persons with visual impairments or other print disabilities and sees the need to expand the number of works in accessible formats, and improve their circulation.

The Special Rapporteur noted that to date, only 46 States and the European Union have either ratified or acceded to the treaty, including 11 African States, namely: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Ghana.

The UDHR proclaims that everyone has inalienable rights to which they are entitled regardless of their status. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur notes that while it does not make specific mention of disability as a protected group from discrimination, the UDHR has over time anchored the development of very concrete instruments to ensure equal rights for persons with disabilities.