BLIND SA and SECTION27 call on Minister Patel to urgently publish regulations to improve access to accessibly formatted books for persons who are blind and visually impaired

3 December 2021, Johannesburg — Today, 3 December, we celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities, a day dedicated to raising public awareness around the rights and welfare of persons with disabilities. On International Day for Persons with Disabilities, we also celebrate the achievements we have made and reflect on the steps we as a country need to take to ensure that we continue to empower people with disabilities in South Africa. It is crucial that they are afforded equal opportunities to participate in our communities and be equipped and empowered to do so.

Unfortunately, for many persons who are blind and visually impaired, this day is not a cause for celebration. In South Africa today, less than 0,5% of published works are available in accessible formats, which has led to a so-called “Book Famine” across the country.

In an effort to address this problem, BLIND SA, represented by SECTION27, took (amongst others) the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition to court in September this year and challenged the Copyright Act for the way it discriminated against persons who are blind or visually impaired. Under this Act, any person who wanted to convert a book into an accessible format such as Braille or Large Print, had to obtain the permission of the copyright holder first. This placed an enormous and costly burden on persons who are blind and visually impaired and limited the way they were able to access books in a format they could use.

A process to replace the Copyright Act has already started, and Parliament has already drafted a solution in draft legislation called the ‘Copyright Amendment Bill’. Section 19D of the Bill specifically creates exceptions for persons with disabilities so that they no longer require the permission of copyright holders if they want to convert published works into accessible formats. It will however take many many months before the entire Bill is approved and becomes law, and the rights of persons who are blind or visually impaired can no longer be violated.

In the hearing in September this year, BLIND SA therefore asked the High Court to declare the Copyright Act unconstitutional, as well as declare that section 19D be immediately “read into” or included in the Copyright Act, so that persons who are blind and visually impaired can start to benefit from this provision. The High Court judge agreed with BLIND SA and handed down a judgement in our favour.

However, the struggle is not over. Although the Copyright Act now reads as if it includes section 19D, the Constitutional Court must confirm this, and to this effect, BLIND SA has lodged its application for confirmation in the Constitutional Court.

In addition, in order for section 19D to take practical effect, Minister Ebrahim Patel, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, must make regulations explaining who precisely is authorised to make and supply accessible format copies of works to persons with disabilities, without the permission of the copyright holder. Without these Regulations, section 19D cannot operate practically and persons who are blind and visually impaired will continue to be excluded.

Only Minister Patel can make these regulations and SECTION27 has already written to the Minister urging him to start this process and indicate the time frames in which the regulations will be published. To date, the Minister has not responded to us, and we are deeply concerned about the Minister’s delay in giving effect to the High Court order.

Jace Nair, CEO of Blind SA said, “The Minister’s delay will have a devastating effect, as his failure to publish regulations that give meaning to section 19D keeps persons who are blind or visually impaired imprisoned in a book famine which continues to deny them equal access to knowledge”.

Education is the key to success, and on this International Day for Persons with Disabilities, we are calling for equal learning opportunities for all. Sighted, blind or visually impaired, we all have a right to education and reading is a large part of the kind of education we desire for our nation.

MINISTER PATEL, WE THEREFORE CALL ON YOU TO DO THE RIGHT THING FOR THE BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED:  PUBLISH REGULATIONS ABOUT 19D WITHOUT DELAY!

ENDS

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