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Any digital text can be read aloud through text-to-speech, granting people with visual impairments the basic human right to read -- unless there's DRM in the way.
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My latest Guardian column, Adapting gadgets to our needs is the secret pivot on which technology turns, explains the hidden economics of stuff, and how different rules can trap you in your own past, or give you a better future.
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The World Intellectual Property Organization's Treaty to Faciiitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired. Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities (the "Treaty for the Blind") has finally passed, after many years of hard work by copyright activists and activists for the rights of people with disabilities.
They were fought, tooth and nail, by the big copyright groups, who were shameless in their willingness to use people with disabilities as pawns in their ideological war on the idea that anyone should be able to do anything with a copyrighted work without explicit permission. The Motion Picture Association was especially terrible here -- a new low for an industry that has made a lobbying career out of plumbing the depths of depravity.
My congratulations to all the copyfighters who made this unprecedented treaty come to pass: the World Blind Union and Dan Pescod (especially!), Knowledge Ecology International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- all of you. As a former WIPO delegate, I can say that this is an unbelievable shift in the way that the UN makes copyright policy.
What's more, it was a (mostly) open process, in sharp contrast to the sinister closed-door process that the Obama administration has insisted upon for the Trans Pacific Partnership and other copyright treaties. Bravo to all of you for setting an example of how copyright policy can be crafted to uphold human rights.
To the shameless lobbyists at the MPA, remember: if you live long enough, the odds are good that you, yourself, will become print disabled. We are all only temporarily sighted. The treaty you tried to wreck was aimed at some of the most vulnerable, information-impoverished people in the world -- and someday, you will join them. For shame. When you see your old parents next, think of them, and what you tried to do to them, and the people of their generation, for the sake of a few extra pennies and some macho gamesmanship.
Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,
Public.Resource.Org has always been a strong supporter of British-American cooperation. In order to further what Winston Churchill so aptly dubbed our “Special Relationship,” I'm happy to announce two hands across the sea.
If you would like to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, you need to study a book called Life in the UK. The book is published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which is part of the amazingly well run National Archives. These are the folks that run legislation.gov.uk, the best legislative reference site in the world. Life in the UK has the kind of open license one has come to expect for government information, so we asked our friends at the Rural Design Cooperative to take a stab at creating an open version. They totally went to town, replacing the commercial stock photos with open artwork, creating much better navigation across the book, study guide, and tests, and making the tests better, and (of course!) publishing the whole thing as valid html and open source so you can fork it if you'd like and create your own version. Thanks to Oliver Morley, the Archivist of the United Kingdom, for enabling open publishing and to the folks at the Rural Design Cooperative for creating the new version. You can read the all new Open Life in the UK here.
I'm sorry to report that another agent of the UK government, the British Standards Institution, apparently didn't get the open government memo. As you know, we've posted a bunch of crucial public safety standards from the UK as well as the rest of Europe and the world. Well, the British Standards Institution decided that they didn't like the fact that we posted a copy of BS 8300:2009+A1, which is the “Design of Buildings and Their Approaches to Meet the Needs of Disabled People” which we have on our site and on the Internet Archive. They sent us a DMCA takedown notice. We sent them a strongly-worded 4-page answer and that answer is NFW. You can read all the traffic back and forth with the standards people on our docket of RFCs.
The "Open Life in the UK" that Public Resource put together is much better than the study guide I used when I was becoming a British citizen. On behalf of all migrants to Britain, thank you, Public Resource!
Remember the New York Post story about disabled people renting themselves out to rich New York families in order to skip the lines at Walt Disney World?
The Today Show followed up on this, investigating the phenomenon of rent-a-disabled-guide services across the country in California's Disneyland. They found people advertising openly on Craigslist, offering to rent out their company and the use of their disabled pass. They sent an undercover crew out with one such guide, and then confronted her in the parking lot and asked her if she felt bad about abusing the system of disabled passes.
Disney has promised to crack down on the practice, threatening lifetime bans from the parks for anyone caught offering the use of their disabled passes.
On ads we found on Craigslist, tour guides brag about their disabled passes: "Let's cut the Disney lines together," "access to ... special entrances." So we had our producer and his family go undercover with home video cameras, hiring two of those disabled guides to show them around Disneyland.
First up was a guide named Mara, who said she got her pass after a car accident. "I'm here to make sure everyone has fun at Disneyland and we get on as many rides as possible," she told us.
"And you have a secret weapon that's going to help us?" our producer asked.
"I do. I have a special card that's going to help us beat the lines," Mara replied with a wink.
And she charged $50 an hour to do it. We started at the Mad Tea Party ride. The long line was no problem for us: We skipped ahead, and got right in through a side door.
Our second disabled guide, Ryan, charged our family $200 and got them right through another side door at Star Tours, an attraction inspired by "Star Wars." "I cant believe we're getting past everybody," our producer exclaimed.
Jim Fruchterman, founder of the NGO Benetech, writes in frustration from the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, where the US Trade Representative is scuttling a treaty that will help blind people and people with other disabilities access copyrighted works, largely by making the (actually rather good) US laws the standard around the world.
Rather than promoting the US approach -- which allows for the creation of works in accessible formats without permission -- the US Trade Rep and his friends from the MPAA are advocating for a treaty that is far more restrictive than US law, ensuring that the US itself could never sign it.
In the process, they're killing a badly needed project to help people with disabilities around the world help each other to access creative works in formats that are adapted for their use.
To give you an idea of the poison pills being advocated for by the MPAA, publishers, and now the U.S. trade delegation, I've outlined the most notable ones below:
1. Commercial Availability Requirements. This poison pill says that if a book is commercially available in an accessible format, it can't be provided by a library to a person with a disability. This is equivalent to walking into a public library and finding padlocks on all the books with a note that says: "If you want to read it, buy it." With a commercial availability requirement, libraries like Bookshare, with hundreds of thousands of accessible books available to people with print disabilities, would have to go through such complex bureaucracy that we couldn't afford to serve people outside the U.S. under a Treaty. The World Blind Union's lead negotiator pointed out how these provisions would, in practice, stop Bookshare from serving blind people in India.
2. The "Three-Step Test" Chokehold. The three-step test is part of international copyright law meant to allow countries to reflect their own values in their copyright exceptions. The United States' copyright exception for the blind is a shining example of something that complies with the three-step test. So what are the negotiators trying to do? They are working to alter the very meaning of the three-step test, changing the language of the test to the point of which it will put a chokehold on a country's ability to make broader exceptions to copyrights. Which leads to #3.
3. Conflicts with American Law. Simply put--the US won't sign it. Our trade delegation is now advocating for a Treaty that would require, if ratified, the U.S. Congress to gut our model copyright exception. Essentially, the Treaty would be too poisonous for the U.S. to swallow. It's clear to everyone that if we couldn't even get the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was pretty much identical to our own Americans with Disabilities Act, ratified by the Senate, a poisoned Treaty for the Blind has no chance of ratification.
The new International Symbol of Accessibility replaces the old, static "disabled" icon, which depicted a rather static, object-like disabled person in a wheelchair -- the new ISA shows a person zooming dynamically in a wheelchair instead. It's been officially adopted in NYC:
After several years of petitioning for change, designers from Gordon College in Massachusetts have come up with an alternative to the traditional stick figure sitting back in a wheelchair.
Their new character is dynamic, leaning forward with its arms at the ready.
"It's such a forward-moving thing," Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Calise, who himself was paralyzed in a cycling accident at the age of 22, plans to begin putting the new logo in place all over New York City this summer.
Revamped disability icons coming to New York City (Thanks, Matthew!)
Taiwanese design student Kaylene Kau created this motorized prosthetic tentacle for a class project: "For this project we were pushed by our Professor to push the boundaries of current upper-limb prosthetic design. Through extensive research I found that the prosthetic functioned as an assistant to the dominant functioning hand. The prosthetic needed to be both flexible and adjustable in order to accommodate a variety of different grips."
I was skeptical of the NY Post story alleging that rich New York private-school parents use a service that lets them hire disabled people to act as line-jumping Disney World guides. Now Lesley, a Disney-obsessed local, has published a rebuttal pointing out that such a service wouldn't work well because there are lots of rides that can accommodate wheelchairs through the regular entrance. She also points out that the article claims that the wheelchair guide helped skip a 2.5h line for Small World, which sounds like BS, because Small World doesn't really get 2.5h lines. The whole thing is worth a read.
I've visited Disneyland and Walt Disney World with friends who had disabilities. I went to Disney World with my mom and a friend who were both in wheelchairs (my Mom had just had a hip replacement; my friend had a broken foot), and found that there were hardly any long-queue rides that offered any priority queuing to people in wheelchairs. On the other hand, I once visited Disneyland with a blind friend and her service dog in the late 1990s and found that people with dogs and their parties did go straight to the front of the line in most cases (I don't know if this is still the case, though).
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Carolina Rossini is at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, where American-led copyright industry trade groups are prepared, once again, to sabotage a treaty guaranteeing access to blind people and people with other disabilities. At the forefront of stopping blind people from having access to reading is the Association of American Publishers. What a ghastly grotesquery.
Let’s Close the Deal on a Treaty for the Blind and Print Disabled
The blind should not be treated like second-tier citizens and considered as an afterthought. The protection of liberties online includes making sure that all people, regardless of ability, can participate in the digital world. As technology advances and more books move from hard-copy print to electronic formats, people with print disabilities deserve the opportunity to enjoy access to books on an equal basis with others. For this reason, EFF has supported a binding international instrument, a treaty, on this matter since the beginning of such discussions at WIPO.
In one of the corridor conversations at WIPO, the publishers’ lobbyists have said they do not want to give a “trophy” treaty for those that fight for access to knowledge. The concept that a treaty that would significantly help the blind participate in the literary world would be considered a “trophy” is offensive on the merits. The entertainment and publishing industry has already gotten many such trophy-treaties themselves: They got the WIPO Internet treaties, they got the Performers Treaty, and a couple of decades ago they got TRIPS. It’s time for them to stop kidding themselves and for us to square the deal and get some balance in copyright.
ZDNet's Rupert Goodwins is going blind. Most of us will lose a substantial fraction of our visual acuity, should we live long enough. As a service to his readers, Goodwins is documenting the way that technology can be adapted for people with visual disabilities. It's a fascinating story: as he says, "there's never been a better time to go blind: we are busy converting the world to digital, and digital is supremely easy to convert."
But that's only true as long as there's no DRM in the mix. Once DRM gets into your information stream, your ability to adapt what's happening on your screen to work with your disability is severely curtailed. As Goodwins discovered, the world of ebooks is especially hard on people with visual disabilities.
...[I]t turned out I needed Adobe Digital Editions to 'manage my content'. Some fun later — you have to download it from a particularly brain-dead web page with teeny-tiny dialog boxes that were broken in Chrome and invisible in Firefox — and I had a large blob of code to install on my Windows box.
It tried, of course, to force me to give Adobe my email and other details for the 'Adobe ID' that it assured me I needed to get full functionality. I demurred... and was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn't find them.
Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart. Along the way, I'd been bombarded by marketing messages telling me to "enjoy the experience" and "enjoy your book".
Reader, I wept. Marketing departments, here's a top tip: if your customer is reduced to actual, hot, stinging tears, you may wish to fine-tune your messaging.
This is the reward you get for being disabled and wanting to do the right thing. This is how the world's most splendid machine for freeing our minds from our physical shackles is itself being shackled. This is what will happen to all of you reading this as you get old. I know this, I've done the research: most of you will start to go blind before you die.