Why are books classified as non-essential goods? This is the pet grouse of book-lovers in India who were desperate to have them delivered at home but could not because e-commerce was being strictly regulated by the Indian government during this COVID-induced lockdown. It was possible to get groceries and medicines but not a volume of poetry, a crime thriller, a graphic novel or a short story collection.
If you enjoy watching re-runs of the popular television series Sex and the City, you might remember this iconic statement: “When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” It sounds funny only when Carrie Bradshaw says it; otherwise it reeks of privilege. Not everyone can afford to joke about hunger.
I understand the frustration of bibliophiles because I too thrive on books for knowledge, entertainment and solace. Moreover, reviewing books is also a source of livelihood for me. Reading e-books feels like a compulsion; it is not my preferred mode of reading. I like to hold a physical copy, keep it under my pillow, make notes on the pages, even kiss the cover when a book brings me tremendous joy.
The lockdown is an opportunity to look at things differently, to be grateful for what one has, and to also recognise that accessibility is a privilege in contexts defined by sharp inequalities. Readers who identify as blind, visually impaired or visually challenged were reading e-books way before this lockdown, and they will continue to read e-books even after it ends. When people like myself romanticise physical books, and keep harping on why e-books do not measure up, we participate in ableism.
In order to keep their business afloat, several Indian publishers have released e-books before the print versions during the lockdown. Some of these titles are Tanweer Fazal’s book The Minority Conundrum: Living in Majoritarian Times (Vintage Books), Devdutt Pattanaik’s book Pilgrim Nation: The Making of Bharatvarsh (Aleph Book Company), and Sonali Gupta’s Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear (HarperCollins). Readers will be able to buy physical copies only later in the year.
If this digital first approach has been a possibility all along, why has it not been explored earlier? Is it because Indian publishers have failed to recognise that their readership also constitutes people who identify as blind, visually impaired and visually challenged? Have they been under the impression that individuals with partial vision, or complete loss of sight, only depend on books in braille?
Said L Subramani, a visually challenged person working as a journalist with Deccan Herald in Bengaluru, “It somehow doesn’t occur to producers of books, or anything that people consume, that those with disability are consumers in the conventional sense. We may consume with different (software) contraptions but it’s nonetheless mainstream for someone like me to expect things to work because I’m used to a digital work/life environment.”
Subramani is the author of the memoir Lights Out: The True Story Of A Man’s Descent Into Blindness. “I book my milk sachets using an online app, recharge my mobile digital pack via a wallet app and even send payments to friends and family via UPI apps,” he said. “Why should reading be any different? Also, I don’t think I, being a disabled person, am the only one to depend on these digital services.”
He added, “Thanks to DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System), it became possible for many e-book formats such as EPUB 3 to become intrinsically accessible. EPUB 3 is something most e-book producers, such as Amazon, use, and so it’s now quite easy for me to read with the Kindle app on the phone. The Kindle bookstore also does a good job of informing us if the e-book we’re choosing is text-to-speech enabled.”
The act of reading is usually defined in ways that foreground the experiences of sighted, non-disabled people. Experiences of reading that do not adhere to this norm are actively excluded. It is high time that Indian publishers began to seriously consider the needs of readers who are print-disabled, readers whose ability to read print materials is hindered by visual, motor, cognitive or developmental disabilities.
Divya Goyal, who identifies as blind, and is a final year student of political science at Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi, said, “In these unprecedented times, we have seen that reasonable accommodations that the disabled community have fought for for decades are suddenly being implemented on a large scale when the able bodied people need them. Reasonable accommodations like flexible working hours, work from home arrangements, etc have long been denied to disabled people. I think similar is the case with the publishing industry.”
I agreed with her when she says that the recent shift to online publishing is not, in any way, motivated by an intention to make books accessible to the print disabled. They are incidental beneficiaries. Most Indian publishing houses are ignorant about the access needs of the print disabled. E-books that are not compatible with screen readers are as inaccessible as hard-bound volumes and paperbacks.
However, the new wave of digital first publishing in India has created a remarkable opportunity for publishers to engage with print-disabled readers, learn about the challenges they face, and use this research to create accessible products that would not only earn them revenue but also goodwill. The first step in this direction is to recognise that these consumers do not expect charity. They want to be treated as readers, book lovers and prospective customers.
The access problem
Right now, it is an arduous task for Goyal to acquire books in accessible formats, particularly when these are titles published in India. If she cannot locate an accessible copy on online platforms, she has to look for a hard copy of the book in her college library or borrow it from a professor. Imagine how time-consuming this whole process is, and how it puts her at a disadvantage in relation to other students and even leads to unequal learning outcomes.
Maitreya Shah, a final year law student at Gujarat National Law University, identifies as blind, and has close to seven years of experience of working on disability rights. “It is easier to get accessible books in foreign jurisdictions like the United States, given that they have better implementation of copyright laws and the fair-use doctrine,” he said. “In India, however, the implementation of this part of the law has been limited to providing a copyright exemption to print-disabled for converting books into accessible formats.”
Shah, who is also the founder-convener of an enabling unit at GNLU, has contributed to India’s Alternate Report to the United Nations Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). He believes that the rationale of copyright protection has been used by publishers to reinforce the dearth of books for the print-disabled.
“The onus on publishers has never been clearly established, which sets out no specific liability on them to provide their books in accessible formats...I have personally faced the brunt of this, grappling with non-availability of Indian literature for years now.,” he said. “No wonder then that I do not have a collection of books or a favourite list of Indian authors that I can think of.”
When educational institutions do not prioritise the provision of accessible reading materials to students with print disabilities, the burden is shifted on to the students. They lose out on exploring ideas, getting introduced to authors, and cultivating new areas of interest. These barriers are erected by an ableist society, and can be removed if there is a will to do so backed by consistent action rather than lip service.
The way forward
Dr Aravinda Bhat, who identifies as visually impaired, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Languages, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) in Manipal, Karnataka. Before buying a book, he likes to check whether it can be read independently either on his computer, using a screen reader called JAWS for Windows (where the acronym stands for Job Access With Speech), or if he can listen to it being read aloud on an audio device.
Accessing books published in India has always been a struggle for him since acquiring digital copies is a real chore. When he does find them, they are often in formats that are inaccessible for visually impaired readers. These files are “protected” to preclude piracy. When digital copies are unavailable, he buys physical copies and gets them scanned to create Microsoft Word or PDF documents, which can be read with his screen reader. This is incredibly cumbersome.
He is extremely pleased with Seagull Books, a publisher that made 28 of their titles available for readers to download in the PDF format. This was done during the lockdown period, entirely free of cost. Bhat said, “These books are fully accessible documents! This publisher is a beacon of hope, and I will be glad to purchase digital books from this house.” The books are English translations of original works by Abdallah Saaf, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tomas Espedal, and Yasser Abdellatif, among many other authors.
He added, “The problem of access is compounded manifold in the case of books written in Indian languages other than English. Although the software called NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) supports local languages, the accent in which the voice synthesiser employed by the software pronounces them is incomprehensible. I have grown used to JAWS. Unfortunately, my chosen software doesn’t support Kannada, the language I speak at home. I’d love to read literary works written in this language. Kannada audio books are hard to find.”
He recognises that publishers need to make profits, and that the threat of piracy is a legitimate concern for them. Therefore, according to him, libraries and educational institutions ought to take the lead apart from organisations set up to serve print disabled communities. They could tap into corporate social responsibility funds, and encourage companies to sponsor books. He also hopes that publishers would try to produce inexpensive audio books that can be played on mobile phones because not all print-disabled people can afford to buy multiple electronic devices.
Dr Jyothsna Phanija is an Assistant Professor of English at ARSD College, University of Delhi. She is a poet, artist and singer who identifies as visually impaired. “Publishers are not concerned about persons with print disabilities,” she said. “We are in a marginalised position. Literary festivals and book fairs have started including panels on disability only recently. This should be done more widely. Indian literature is losing out on a wide readership of print-disabled readers because publishers are not making books available in accessible formats. Publishers should also encourage disabled people to write their own life narratives.”
As Goyal put it, “This pandemic has exposed the systemic inequalities fabricated in our society. I hope we see it as an opportunity to include communities that have long been excluded, and do not lift these accommodations when these are no longer deemed necessary for able-bodied people.”
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.