Movies and books for the blind How accessible are media in Germany?

Blind people read with their fingers;
Blind people read with their fingers; | Photo (detail): © Fotolia

Blind people want culture without barriers. But the supply of films and books for them is negligible. This could be easily changed.

Blind people too like to read. Many even go to the movies. They want culture without barriers. But in Germany there are hardly any movies for blind people. Access even to literature adapted to the blind has been snagged for years on the question who is responsible for its implementation. Blind and visually impaired people are not registered in official statistics in Germany. World Health Organization (WHO) estimates from 2002, based on surveys in other countries, put the number in Germany at approximately 1.2 million.

When you do not see but only hear a film, you get at least a rough idea of the action from the sound. The sounds and dialogue of the actors generate images in the listener’s head. Music too can provide a valuable indication of the prevailing mood. For the blind, most images remain invisible. The solution is called audio description. At the moments in which no one in the film is speaking you can hear a voice. It describes everything that is silently happening; the appearance of the characters, their gestures and facial expressions. Subtitles too are read.

Audio description is mandatory, but isn’t broadcast

The descriptions are brief because they must fit into the silent moments of the film. In this way nothing of the film plot is lost and blind people can enjoy the complete cinematic experience. On German television, so-called audio described films are broadcast primarily by the public service broadcasters ARD, ZDF and Arte. Awareness of accessibility in cinema is promoted annually by the awarding of the German Audio Described Film Prize. In 2016 the British romantic drama 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, and Borowski und der Himmel über Kiel (i.e. Borowski and the Sky over Kiel), a crime thriller from the Tatort series, received the award for the best audio described films.

In order for a film to receive subsidies, it must be produced with an audio description for the blind; this is now required by law in Germany. It is not, however, mandatory that the film then be broadcast in an accessible format. An absurd situation: many films that also exist in a version for the blind are not shown accessibly. Blockbusters in particular are shown very rarely in a version with audio description.

Harry Potter in Braille fills several bookshelves

Similarly negligible is the selection on the book market: just five per cent of German-language literature is accessible to the blind. In Germany blind people generally learn Braille, a script consisting of embossed points, read with the fingers. There are printing houses that print books in Braille – for example, the Braille Publishers in Paderborn. But books in the script are expensive and cumbersome; in Braille the entire Harry Potter series, for instance, fills several shelves. Particularly amongst younger readers the interest in Braille books is in decline. Here the audiobook is on the rise.

With almost every current bestseller there promptly appears an audiobook version. These works, however, are often shortened and, moreover, more expensive than their printed counterparts. One alternative is afforded by audiobook libraries for the blind: they produce unabbreviated audiobooks, which blind people could loan free of charge. These audiobooks are not the commercial ones such as are sold in bookshops, but are readings adapted to the needs of the blind listener: images are explained, tables itemized and the audiobooks can, thanks to a special data format called Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System), even be quoted. In Germany there are libraries for the blind in Berlin, Bonn, Hamburg, Leipzig, Marburg, Munich and Münster. One of the largest and the oldest public library for the blind, founded in 1894, is the German Central Library for the Blind (DZB) in Leipzig. Five thousand active users here regularly borrow Braille and audiobooks from the holdings of 50,000. A similarly large supply is provided by the German Library for the Blind in Marburg, with holdings of 45,000 Daisy media. Several hundred Daisy books are daily sent by the North German Library for the Blind and the Central Library for the Blind Foundation, both in Hamburg; this comes to annual borrowings of 165,000 media.

Held back by dispute over jurisdiction

A major hurdle for libraries for the blind, however, is the German copyright law. Anyone who wants to produce a book adapted for the blind must obtain the permission of the rights holder. It is by no means a matter-of-course that publishers grant permission. A new EU agreement could furnish a solution to the problem: the so-called Marrakesh Agreement provides that accessible literature can be produced without the consent of the rights holder. This would facilitate the work of libraries for the blind immensely.

But although the Marrakesh Agreement was already ratified by EU in 2013, the German Federal Government has yet to implement it. The reason for this is a dispute between the European Commission and the EU member countries over legal jurisdiction. Only once this dispute has been settled will blind people finally have access to a wider selection of books.