‘Anything that gets Africa literature to readers benefits African literature’
‘We have largely failed in making published materials accessible for all’
By Godwin Okondo
THE Quramo Festival of Words (QFest 2022) that ended recently in Lagos was seasoned with discussions on improving Nigeria’s literary and literacy sector, as well as finding ways to educate the visually impaired via Braille and other means in what would make for an inclusive and accessible publishing in the country and Africa.
With ‘Africa Positive’ as theme, one of its panel discussions was centred on how publishers and writers can prepare transcriptions of their books to make them available for the visually impaired to read. The panel session on ‘African Literature and the State of Inclusive Publishing in Nigeria’ had the Director of Babcock University Press, Dr. Samuel Okere, Managing Director of Sterling Books Nigeria Limited, Mrs. Folashade Shinkaiye, the Managing Director of Showers IMC, Mrs. Yomi Ogunlari, and co-founder of Narrative Landscape Press Ltd and novelist, Dr. Eghosa Imasuen. The Executive Secretary of Nigeria Publishers Association (NPA), Mr. Emmanuel Abimbola the session.
Okere recalled the Treaty for Inclusive Publishing that was signed in June 2013 in Morocco by African publishers that should be binding and a guide to all publishers on the continent, so they publish materials that could be accessible to the visually impaired to also enjoy the pleasure of reading.
According to Okere, “Literature deals with the reflection of life, either refracting or reflecting. We are talking about African content, whether written in English or any other African language. In 2013, there was a meeting in a city in Morocco where it was decided that there was a kind of literature famine amongst the blind and visually impaired. This group was cut off from literacy materials. The more the level of our involvement, the more the increase in accessing these literacy materials.
“The greater percentage of visually impaired (persons) live in less developed countries of the world. There has to be a deliberate effort so that persons with these disabilities could have access to literary (and literacy) materials, and it takes about 20 countries to sign this (document) for it to become a treaty. Our country has signed an undertaking that whatever is publish should be made available for the visually impaired. The visually impaired can only read Braille, and there are other formats like audio. Published materials should be made in forms that would be accessible to all persons. Everyone has a right to knowledge and information. It is a fundamental right.”
Ogunlari noted the ignorance still prevalent among publishers what inclusive publishing means. She then stressed the imperative of catering for all classes of readers, adding that the vagaries of life could make those who are visually sound today to fall into the category of visually impaired with no fault of theirs.
“A lot of us have never heard of inclusive publishing, so I think we need to go back to the basics and educate ourselves,” she said. “There are so many publishers who know nothing about it. We are really all equal, but anything can happen to anybody. I know someone who took an injection and became blind. It is important that we take care of people with disabilities in society. As we grow old, we become partially visually impaired, so it’s important that we take care of ourselves because we don’t know what could happen in future. If we lose our sight, you can imagine what we can lose (if there are not reading materials in formats that cater for such eventuality). I think it’s important that we include everybody in benefitting from this.”
While sharing her opinion on inclusive publishing, Shinkaiye said, “I could say that we have largely failed in making published materials accessible for (all) those who need them. I have been publishing long enough to be able to estimate that we have not been compliant to the level of 80-90 per cent, because the level we have gone. As far as most publishers are concerned, we often make most of our materials available to be transcribed into Braille or other accessible formats, but that is still a small percentage. There are publishers who are beginning to understand the need to make materials inclusive.
“This forum is very important, not only for us who are present, but to get people to have that training to do more. And at this stage, I think we are beginning to understand the importance. Before now, most publishing companies were commercial organizations, so they look at it that it’s more profitable to go into normal books. But now, they know it’s (also) important that everybody is carried along. You find that people with disabilities are reminded of their disabilities, because we haven’t provided for them. We must do a lot more to ensure that everyone is accommodated.”
She also addressed the distribution constraints publishers face in making their content widely available, suggesting the need for training in inclusive publishing: “I think it’s a test of knowledge that publishers should have. They are only recently becoming exposed to inclusive publishing. It’s also necessary to know how to transcribe their materials from the printed copies to non-print formats that make their materials accessible. Maybe the Nigerian Publishers Association and all other relevant associations need to bring publishers together to train them and explain how they can do this.”
According to the medical doctor-turned-writer-and-publisher and author of Fine Boys, Imasuen, no audience for African literature is to small to be discounted, including the visually impaired, adding that all possible formats should be explored to expand the scope of literature coming out of the continent.
“It takes a bit of a mental shift to listen to texts and stories, because that is eventually what it’s coming back to,” he said. “We record stories in texts and Braille, which I hope never dies because of technology. Braille increases accessibility, and the business will never die because more people need these stories to know what we have to tell. Anything that gets Africa literature to readers benefits African literature.”
“Publishers need to become aware that there is no audience that is too small. Text-to-speech is something that people are becoming more conversant with. There are different entities coming together to make inclusive publishing possible. After investing in Braille, which is expensive, there are other electronic means through which you can also expand your market, which would benefit the industry, the creator, the publisher and the readers.”
Okere further shared his thoughts on inclusive publishing, suggesting the element of technology and how bodies in the publishing spectrum could help leverage inclusivity through training of relevant personnel.
According to him, “Inclusive publishing is tech-driven, and at our own time now, technology is still expensive, but it’s possible and a reality. A more robust platform should be created by the NPA where publishers should be educated on this. Individual efforts are also essential for this. The National Library of Nigeria should also request for transcribed books from publishers, so the visually impaired will be happy to visit the libraries. When looking for a publisher, make sure they are trained for inclusive publishing.
“The African Publishing Network (APNET), and others are asking that people need to be making literary materials available in the form that will be accessible for those with disabilities. It took a long time to endorse that document, and Nigeria did in 2017. We should make our works available to those who are visually impaired. There are platforms made available for training, and we need to key into this to advocate and create a platform for inclusive publishing.”
Operators of Showers IMC and Sterling Books Nigeria shared their experiences of promoting inclusive publishing in their outfits, saying it has been fulfilling, as they see the experience as giving back to society.
For Ogunlari, what Showers IMC is doing is an act of giving back to society, and not profit: “I see Showers key into this as something important. I don’t see it as a way of making money but as a way to give back to the society. Even if we don’t benefit from them financially, it’s important to give back to society.”
For Sterling Books Nigeria Ltd, Shinkaiye said, “Being here today is a privilege because we are now advocates for inclusive publishing. Sterling Books would be encouraged to key into this idea. It’s going to get to a point where this becomes mandatory, but without it being mandatory, we should be able to do this, knowing that we are rendering additional service.”
Imasuen summed up his thought thus: “As technology shifts the scales required, Braille literacy should not be lost. As we create contents that are disabled-friendly, there is still a lot to be done to restructure. We are pushing to get into audiobooks, not just relying on text to speech. Our hearts are in a good place, and that is why we are here.”
Okere also had his final word: “Inclusive publishing has come to stay. We all have a right to knowledge, books, and so on, and anyone can be disabled at any time. It is not charity, but a social responsibility on the part of writers and publishers. Let us all be accessible publishing advocates and directors because the world is in an accessible stage, so we have to be accessible. I own a platform where I teach inclusive publishing to students, publishers and journalists.”