Author Sao Ichikawa’s novel “Hanchibakku” (The hunchback), which was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature last month, leaves a stinging impact on readers.
Ichikawa’s profound sense of frustration caused by her severe disabilities, which make it impossible for her to freely move her body, is expressed through the words of the protagonist.
“I hated paper books. I hated the machismo of the traditional reading culture, which requires five physical abilities–the ability to see, the ability to hold a book, the ability to turn pages, the ability to maintain a reading posture and the ability to freely go to bookstores to buy books. I hated the ignorant arrogance of book lovers who are not aware of their privilege of being able to read paper books.”
Many disabled people cannot read books they want to read because the Japanese publishing industry has been less than eager to publish books in electronic form. The situation represents a serious violation of the right to read.
Ichikawa tried to express her indignation about the situation in her novel, according to the author.
The reading barrier-free law, which was established in 2019 in response to the ratification of an international treaty to facilitate access to books for print-disabled individuals, calls for measures to make it easier for visually impaired people and others with disabilities that prevent them from holding a book or turning pages.
The law envisions a society where all members, disabled or not, can enjoy the benefits of printed materials by expanding the availability of copyrighted works. But it has not led to any notable progress.
Electronic books have the advantages of being weightless and being able to increase the font size. A screen reader allows people with a visual impairment to “listen to” books. But not many books are sold in electronic form.
Experts say three-fourths of newly published books are in paper format only.
This trend is especially pronounced for books deemed necessary for education and research. Additional costs seem to be the principal factor behind the reluctance of small and midsize publishers to offer ebooks.
Some authors refuse to have their books published in an electronic format.
Libraries and volunteer groups have been working to improve access to books for disabled people through such activities as Braille translation and reading books aloud. But less than a sufficient number of books can be made available only through these efforts.
If publishers make text data of their books available, disabled people themselves can use text-to-speech software to have books be read aloud. But not many publishers are willing to respond to such a request because of the time and trouble involved or the risk of data leakage.
But conventional business practices should not be used as a rationale for rejecting requests for barrier-free services. The publishing industry should make more positive responses to the needs of print-disabled individuals.
“Able-bodied people are in an enviable position of being able to adopt a casual attitude toward reading and tossing out phrases that have the aroma of culture, such as ‘the smell of paper,’ ‘the sensation of turning pages’ and ‘the sense of tension coming from how the remaining pages in the left hand are shrinking.’”
Ichikawa’s argument forces society to confront the predicament of people who cannot read books on their own will. The situation that is good enough for the majority of people but poses serious problems and challenges for minorities is not limited to the state of book publishing.
In particular, digitalization plays an important role for creating a barrier-free environment for reading.
Ichikawa’s award-winning novel should lead to a broad public debate on the realities that minorities are facing.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 4