The State President Dr Bingu Wa Mutharika has an unquestionable love for music. His favourite being Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umodzi. On the other hand, his belief in the role of education in national development is unquestionable too. We have his speeches on public podia to judge this. In his speech at the Opening of the 2005 Budget Session of The National Assembly he said “a vibrant education sector is the key to the development of our human resource base and national development capacity”
However, looking back over my shoulder I see a group of fellow Malawians left behind while the rest of us are forging ahead with one spirit. Students with disabilities are still struggling to access education resources in Malawi. They face problems to access classroom with their wheelchairs and education materials such as books are in inaccessible formats.
In this article, I will particularly focus on visually impaired students. What does it take a visually impaired student to access information in a library? Anyone with a heart will cry tears of sympathy for a visually impaired student. Academic libraries in Malawi can hardly afford audio books, books in Braille and other accessible formats used by visually impaired students. In the absence of these, a library can use modern computer equipment with assistive technologies to transcribe print into Braille. However, in Malawi where all [copy]rights are reserved it is illegal to do this. The librarian stand, hands tied by the copyright limitations. The only option that is used, legally or illegally, I don’t know, is to ask a friend to read while a visually impaired student transcribe what they find relevant.
As librarians, promoting free flow of information, we need supportive government policies. In addition, we need enabling laws that gives us opportunities neither to infringe on the rights of creators of knowledge nor those of the genuine and disadvantaged seekers of knowledge. The Malawi Copyright Act No. 9, 26 April 1989 is under review and it is our humble prayer that His Excellency the State President who is also the Minister of Education will make deliberate efforts to influence inclusion of exceptions aimed at benefiting the visually impaired students.
Practically, even if the copyright law allowed us librarians to transcribe parts of books into Braille, would we afford the equipment? Because special needs education is underfunded in Malawi, disabled students in general and visually impaired students in particular do not have access to the basic facilities they need for their education. With new developments in technology it is now possible for visually impaired use assistive software to browse the Internet. These are opportunities that should not pass-bye visually impaired students in our universities. In this digital age the Internet is the gateway to numerous sources of information.
As they say charity begins at home. Difficulties in accessing educational resources in formats suitable for visually impaired students are experienced within the Ministry of Education. We know the Directorate responsible for special needs education has problems accessing electronic copies of core texts for non-commercial transcription into Braille. However, the fear by publishers to release electronic copies in the absence of regulatory frameworks is understandable. May be it is high time we put in place these regulatory frameworks. The National Library Services too needs to be supported to provide a socially inclusive service. The question we need to ask is if Ministry of Education is struggling to support visually impaired students what more with non-governmental organisations such as Malawi Union for the Blind.
There is need to strike a balance between copyright protection and access to information. Besides, we need to start questioning the rationale for having one organisation looking into the interests of copyright holders and those of consumers of the copyrighted works. Having a separate bodying looking into the interests of consumers of copyrighted works would provide a mouth piece that would negotiate for flexible licensing arrangements to enable institutions such as Malawi National Library Services and Ministry of Education access publisher’s e-files. Our hope is that copyright exceptions will be included in the copyright act and these exceptions will not require the students to compensate the rights holders.
The onus is on us to support fellow visually impaired Malawians in making their voice heard. To corporate organisations when giving back to your customers do it equitably; remember the visually impaired by supporting the Malawi Union for the Blind. To copyright holders, you have the responsibility to let your light shine. Share the knowledge you are holding for the development of mother Malawi. Finally, to our beloved President and Minister of Education, we have history to testify what you are capable of doing. Our humble request is for your support in this noble cause and influences the changes in our legal system to enable visually impaired friends and relatives see the light.
The Millennium Development Goals Monitor shows that it is possible for Malawi to achieve the second Millennium Development Goal if some changes were made. Ladies and gentlemen arise to propose that Malawi makes changes to remove legal barriers to access to information by visually impaired people. Let’s think Malawian in all policy formulations and not only level the playing field but also build platform for those who can’t reach the information to stand on. Let’s work towards enabling the disabled. Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umodzi (Lets forge ahead with one spirit)