Have you heard of White Cane Day?

Celebrated on 15 October every year, it raises awareness about the lives of people who are blind and partially sighted, as well as to celebrate their independence, abilities and valuable contributions to society.

A white cane refers to a long stick used by visually impaired people to check their surroundings while on the move. In some countries, it is mandatory to have the cane painted in white as the colour indicates to those in the vicinity that they need to take appropriate care around the visually impaired person.

This year, Indonesia has more reasons to celebrate the Day. Earlier this year, the country officially ratified “The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled,” which UNDP had supported.

One of the biggest challenges that people who are blind or partially sighted face is a “print disability,” where they are unable to read printed material conventionally. The World Blind Union estimates that less than 10 percent of published books have been made into formats accessible to people with print disabilities such as braille, audiobooks, e-books and large print.

The figure is less than 1 percent in developing countries.

This situation is often referred to as a ‘book famine,’ affecting millions of people. While an ordinary famine can deprive people of healthy growth, a book famine prevents people with print disabilities from making the most of their human development potential by restricting their educational, income-earning, and cultural opportunities.

To end the global ‘book famine,’ member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency, came together to adopt the Marrakesh Treaty in 2013. Indonesia was one of only two ASEAN countries that signed the Treaty. The Treaty provides an international copyright legal framework to enable and facilitate the creation, distribution and cross-border exchange of books and other published works in accessible formats for use by people with print disabilities.

UNDP has been supporting Indonesia’s disability-inclusive efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, underpinned by the principles of ‘leaving no one behind’ and ‘reaching the furthest behind first.’

Across the world, people with disabilities are often among the most stigmatized and excluded, the poorest of the poor, and are being left behind in national development. In Indonesia, in the 25-39 age

group, the poverty rate of persons with a disability (22 percent) is more than double the figure for persons without a disability (10 percent).[1]

According to Statistics Indonesia, around 8.5 percent of people in Indonesia live with disabilities, which amounts to over 20 million people. About 3.5 million of them are estimated to have visual impairments.

To assist the government as they worked towards the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, UNDP partnered with organizations supporting the blind and partially sighted, including the Indonesian Blind Union (Pertuni) and the Mitra Netra Foundation to raise awareness, strengthen the national capacity and support evidence-informed policymaking.

The Marrakesh Treaty provides Indonesia with an additional legal framework to advocate, protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities. It helps fulfill the country’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Disability Law (Law No 8/2016).

The Marrakesh Treaty can improve equal access to knowledge and information with a greater national collection of accessible format works facilitated by enabling legal environment. It can help expand libraries for people with print disabilities where they can access books, textbooks, journals and other published works in accessible formats, just as sighted people can go to school or public libraries to read and borrow books.

Under the Marrakesh Treaty, Indonesians can access large collections of accessible format works available from other member countries, including the US, the European Union and Japan. The global access can expand educational, career or cultural opportunities for persons with print disabilities ranging from those who study foreign languages or literature to those who seek the latest scientific knowledge.

As Aria Indrawati, President of the Indonesian Blind Union (Pertuni) says: "Access to knowledge is a principal human right. There will be no development without books that can be accessed. After this strategic ratification, strengthening domestic policies and sustainable financing ecosystems is a priority for all parties."

While Indonesia’s ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty deserves a celebration, the work is not finished, until the benefits reach people with print disabilities and their living conditions improve. Greater social awareness and stronger enabling environments are needed so that Indonesia can take full advantage of the Marrakesh Treaty as well as the CRPD and Disability Law.

Then the country can move faster and closer to an inclusive, just and sustainable society, the core vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

According to the WHO, cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in Indonesia. Such diseases can lead to varying degrees of print disability including visual impairment. We never know if and when you or I could become the beneficiary of the Marrakesh Treaty and a disability-inclusive society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world that we are as vulnerable as the most vulnerable in our societies. As we celebrate White Cane Day, we should be reminded that the COVID-19 response must be disability-inclusive and that disability-inclusive development is beneficial for us all, regardless of disability status.

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Text by Arry Lesmana Putra, UNDP Indonesia and Kayuzuki Uji, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

For more information:

- UNDP Indonesia, Mitra Metra, PSHK (2018). Issue Brief 2: Assessment of Policy Opportunities for the Ratification and Implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty in Indonesia. (Also available in Bahasa Indonesia)

- UNDP Indonesia, Mitra Metra, PSHK, WBUAP, EIFL (2017). Issue Brief for Indonesia on the Marrakesh Treaty. (Also available in Bahasa and talking book)

- ‘Leave no one behind,’ UNDP aims to champion the rights of visually impaired people in Indonesia

[1] As cited in TNP2K and Australian Government (2019). Policy Brief: Including Social Protection for Persons with Disability in Indonesia.

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