12 September 2023 – SECTION27 and Blind SA will make oral submissions before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“the Committee”) during its 18th Pre-Sessional Working Group on 12 September 2023.
The oral submissions are based on SECTION27 and Blind SA’s joint, written submissionsdelivered to the Committee in July this year, and highlight key challenges that persons who are blind or visually impaired, including learners, experience in South Africa.
In its oral submissions, SECTION27 and Blind SA will emphasise South Africa’s failure to ratify the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled” (the “Marrakesh Treaty”) and its resultant impact on persons with visual disabilities living in South Africa.
This Treaty seeks to address the global “book famine,” in which only a small percentage (between 1-7%) of books are published in accessible formats for persons who are blind or visually impaired. Accessible formats include printing in braille or large print. Ratifying this treaty will significantly improve access to reading materials for persons who are blind or visually impaired living in South Africa as it allows for their cross-border exchange and secures access to online libraries and international consortiums, guaranteeing immediate access to hundreds of thousands of titles in accessible formats.
Despite repeated commitments to do so, the South African government has failed to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty since its adoption in 2013. The state has argued that South Africa’s copyright law does not include exceptions for persons who are blind and visually impaired, and therefore does not align with the treaty’s requirements. However, in September 2022, the Constitutional Court handed down a judgment in the matter Blind SA v Minister of Trade Industry and Competition and Others which declared the Copyright Act 98 of 1978 unconstitutional for discriminating against persons who are blind or visually impaired by limiting their access to reading materials. The Court gave Parliament 24 months to rectify the defects in the Act. In the meantime, the Court created an exception, which must be read into the Copyright Act immediately, that allows persons who are blind or visually impaired to convert books into accessible formats without the permission of the copyright holder. With this exception, our copyright law no longer hinders South Africa’s ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, and the government should take immediate steps to ratify the Treaty.
SECTION27 and BLINDSA’s oral submissions will also highlight the South African government’s failure to provide sufficient braille textbooks to learners who are blind. In 2018, a court order compelled the National Department of Basic Education and all nine provincial education departments to produce and deliver braille textbooks to all learners at schools for the blind and full-service schools. However, schools are still experiencing severe shortages.
In addition, SECTION27 and Blind SA will highlight the shortage of braille machines for learners who are blind, which has forced learners to share machines. This is analogous to learners needing to share a pen and severely affects the rate at which learners learn to write in braille.
SECTION27 and Blind SA’s submissions will also explain the lack of training on Orientation and Mobility and Skills for Daily Living in schools for the blind across the country, which has left many learners without the skills they need to move freely and independently in their surroundings and undertake daily tasks such as dressing and eating on their own.
Lastly, SECTION27 and Blind SA will highlight the government’s failure to provide qualifying learners with disabilities with state-subsidised scholar transport. In the 2022/2023 financial year, only around 66% of learners, who are day scholars, were provided with transport, forcing thousands of learners to walk long distances to schools.
These submissions aim to direct the set of questions the Committee will pose to the South African government and require it to answer in its next country report. This report requires the government to explain how the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is being implemented in South Africa, and it is hoped that progress and plans addressing these important issues will be provided.
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