ABC Partner Profiles: Bangladesh’s Vashkar Bhattacharjee and the Young Power in Social Action
September 28, 2023
This is the second article in WIPO’s Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) “Partner Profiles” series, which highlights the important work that its partners are performing to support people who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled in their countries.
Vashkar Bhattacharjee knows the power of persistence. Born blind in rural Bangladesh, his journey to become a leader in the country’s social sector is one of perseverance against great odds. Sadly, ignored as a young child by teachers and classmates, Vashkar remembers a lucky break when his family’s doctor mentioned a dedicated school for the visually impaired. “My parents didn’t know there was such a thing,” he recalls. After completing his schooling, however, Vashkar was denied a university education. There was no ill will, he says. The local university simply didn’t know how to cater for visually impaired students. “I was in the too-hard basket. There were no materials for blind students at that time. One would have to rely on friends and relatives to read or record the books for you on tapes”. Undeterred, Vashkar pressed for reconsideration and finally won admission to the university after a hunger strike with some other students.
When asked about his chosen path, Vashkar says he knew early on how he wanted to spend his life. On a youth leadership programme in Japan, he learned what technology could do for those who are blind. “For the first time, I had educational support enabled by the smartphone and computers. It was a revelation. I became convinced that technology was the answer and was something I wanted to pursue professionally to help others.” At that time, however, the advice was “no, you can’t do this – there aren’t enough computers in Bangladesh and no reliable electricity”. The implication was that he should either focus on something else or create a life outside of his native country.
Today, Vashkar draws upon his personal experiences of adversity to drive change for persons with visual impairments in Bangladesh. He has become one of Bangladesh’s key advocates on issues of technology, accessibility and social inclusion in education and employment for Bangladeshis with visual impairments. He is a leading contributor to the work of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a non-profit organization active in accessibility publishing. YPSA inaugurated ABC’s technical training and assistance activities in 2015, with funding from the Government of Australia. YPSA succeeded in converting nearly 700 books into accessible formats from 2015-2019, through this funding obtained from Australian Funds-in-Trust. Vashkar is also a consultant to a2i, a government innovation program for Bangladesh’s digital transition, which was also critical in the success of the ABC project in Bangladesh.
When Vashkar’s primary school daughter asked for his help with her homework, her school textbooks were not accessible to him, so he sought funding and devised a new multimedia talking book so that he could read together with her. Because of his efforts on the multimedia talking book, Vashkar was recognized with a special award by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister in 2016.
Among many other achievements and accolades, Vashkar is particularly proud of the advocacy campaign on the Marrakesh Treaty at a national level. “Early on, there was certainly some resistance and a misunderstanding of the Marrakesh Treaty among government, lawmakers and industry”, he says. “Laws and regulations frequently fall behind technology and can be hard to change easily”. Vashkar and his YPSA colleagues, along with a2i and others, worked tirelessly, with the support of WIPO and ABC, to address stakeholder concerns and communicate the benefits of the Marrakesh Treaty. His characteristic persistence paid off when Bangladesh joined the Marrakesh Treaty in September 2022. “This was a great satisfaction to us at YPSA and a2i and more broadly in the community”, Vashkar admits, “knowing what it means for access to the world’s books and literature for people with print disabilities in Bangladesh”.
Bangladesh has significant potential as an inclusive society, says Vashkar. “This will take work, work my colleagues at YPSA, a2i and other stakeholders are committed to doing”, he adds. YSPA and a2i are focusing on cooperation among government, commercial publishers and other organizations serving people with print disabilities to adopt the latest accessible publishing techniques in Bangladesh. The aim is for future publications to be “born accessible”.
Effective implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty within Bangladesh will be key to YSPA’s work and this vision.
Asked for his advice to future leaders, Vashkar’s message is one of optimism in doing good: “I like to work for my community and every day is different. I believe that if you enjoy your work, you will never feel tired of it.”
According to a 2017 study published in The Lancet, approximately 253 million people are blind or visually impaired world-wide. Nearly 90% of these are resident in developing countries, where the World Blind Union (WBU) estimates that people who are blind have only a one in ten chance of going to school or getting a job. A lack of accessible books remains a very real barrier to getting an education and leading an independent, productive life.
The Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) is a public–private partnership led by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) that brings together all of the key players – organizations representing people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print-disabled, authors, publishers, collective management organizations, libraries and other authorized entities, as well as standards bodies. ABC was established in June 2014 to implement the goals of the Marrakesh Treaty. Through an effective international alliance of relevant state and non-state actors, ABC seeks to increase, and distribute, the number of books worldwide in accessible formats - such as braille, audio, e-text and large print.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the global forum for intellectual property policy, services, information and cooperation. A specialized agency of the United Nations, WIPO assists its 193 member states in developing a balanced international IP legal framework to meet society's evolving needs. It provides business services for obtaining IP rights in multiple countries and resolving disputes. It delivers capacity-building programs to help developing countries benefit from using IP. And it provides free access to unique knowledge banks of IP information.