Activists, including blind, visually impaired march to Constitutional Court to fight to #EndTheBookFamine

A woman reads a book in braille. Picture: File

A woman reads a book in braille. Picture: File

Published May 12, 2022


Pretoria - Activists, including blind and visually impaired people, will march to the Constitutional Court today to fight to #EndTheBookFamine for the blind, visually impaired.

They are also calling on the apex court to confirm that the Copyright Act is unconstitutional.

In a major first-step victory for visually impaired people, the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria earlier declared the Copyright Act of 1978 invalid for violating their rights.

BlindSA and Section27 had called for copyright reform so that people who were blind could access all published works in accessible formats.

The outdated Copyright Act made it near-impossible for blind or visually impaired people to access books and reading material. The legislation stipulated that to convert a book or any published work into Braille, or an accessible format, permission must be secured from the copyright holder.

Although the high court did declare the act invalid, this still has to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

The court will be called on to decide whether the act is unconstitutional for the barriers it imposes on persons who are blind or visually impaired who want to convert books into accessible formats like Braille.

Learners, teachers and students who cannot access textbooks and other learning support materials in accessible formats when they need them, face threats of fines, jail time or lawsuits simply for converting a book into a format a blind person can read.

It will be argued that parents being unable to read a bedtime story to their children because they do not have permission to convert the storybook into Braille is just one of the challenges that blind and visually disabled persons face because of South Africa’s outdated Copyright Act.

According to Section27 this resulted in a book famine in South Africa for persons who are blind or visually impaired. As things stand, the 1978 Copyright Act does not contain an exception to copyright for persons with disabilities, which means that a blind person must secure permission from the copyright holder of a book to convert the text into Braille or another accessible format.

This can take a very long time, and copyright holders ignore most of these requests. This means that only around 0.5% of all published works in South Africa are available in accessible formats. If a person who is blind converts a text into an accessible format without the copyright holder’s permission, they can be fined, imprisoned or sued.

Section27 said the next step in changing our law to promote the rights of persons who are blind or visually impaired is to appear before the Constitutional Court.

The respondents in the case – the minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, the minister of International Relations and Co-operation, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, and the president – are not opposing the application.

The high court earlier ordered that a provision must be added to allow for an exception to copyright for people with disabilities so that they can convert published works into accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and in a digitally accessible format.

Julia Chaskalson of Section27 said this first step was also a victory for learners with disabilities, who would now be able to access works under copyright in accessible formats more easily.

“This challenge to apartheid-era copyright law will vindicate the constitutional rights of people who are blind or visually impaired to equality, dignity, basic and further education, freedom of expression, language and participation in the cultural life of one’s choice,” she said.

Pretoria News