The Marrakesh Treaty and Early Tactile Design for the Blind

The Marrakesh Treaty and Early Tactile Design for the Blind

By Charles Doran

Valentin Haüy, Essai sur l’éducation des enfans aveugles (Paris: 1786). Cotsen Children’s Library.

The Marrakesh Treaty was adopted on June 27, 2013, in Marrakesh, Morocco, and is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The core component of the treaty is to align and create exceptions to existing copyright laws of its signatories, which allows for greater access to published works for persons that are blind, visually impaired, or who have other disabilities related to reading printed texts or viewing printed images. For example, a published work may be provided in braille or other accessible formats that fit the needs of the user. The treaty also allows for greater flexibility in cross-border sharing of works. 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) affirms that access to information is a fundamental human right. While copyright law can be a convoluted legal framework for fair use in any one country, let alone globally, the Marrakesh Treaty has provided a mechanism for a united response in providing access to information to those who may require alternative formats due to a disability.

Worldwide, approximately 15% of the population has a disability, making persons with a disability the world’s largest minority group. The Marrakesh Treaty not only helps facilitate access to information, but it also promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion of persons with a disability. As such, after a decade, it should be recognized for its impact. 

The Marrakesh Treaty may have been adopted only ten years ago, but tactile design for the visually impaired has been around since the 18th century. While many are familiar with the six-dot tactile alphabet developed by Louis Braille in 1829, raised type was the initial means by which those with vision impairments were taught how to read. Raised type uses the common alphabet, which is printed using embossing plates to create a raised text that can be read by touch.

In 1786, Valentin Haüy produced the first book using raised type. The Haüy volume, Essai sur l’éducation des aveugles, was created at the Royal Institute for Blind Youths in Paris, the world’s first known school for the blind.

An additional example of raised type is Milton’s Poetical Works. This two-volume set was printed for the Perkins Institution for the Blind in 1855. Founded in 1829, Perkins is the first school for the blind established in the United States, which marked a leap forward for education equality in America for those with vision disabilities.

John Milton, Poetical Works (Boston: Perkins Institution, 1855). Rare Books Collection.

Special Collections at Princeton University Library also holds four examples of early tactile print donated by Clara Newth, who was an Assistant Librarian at Princeton in the early 1900s. These examples include American braille, English braille, the New York Point Alphabet, and a William Moon raised type of the Lord’s Prayer.

This year, the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor has chosen the theme of “Advancing Access and Equity” for Disability Awareness Month. So this October, let us pay homage to this important and yet obscure treaty that has allowed the pursuit of knowledge across the globe regardless of disability or borders, as well as the texts that make that pursuit possible.