Stevie Wonder Strikes Chord in UN Appeal for Disabled

By Peter Capella, AFP September 20, 2010 10:03 AM
US soul singer Stevie Wonder performs after he deliverd a speech during the opening of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s annual assembly on September 20, 2010 in Geneva.  

GENEVA – Blind U.S. soul music star Stevie Wonder struck up a singalong at a UN agency Monday as he urged countries to unlock access to copyrighted material that disabled people need for their education and livelihoods.

“What I would like to do today is launch what I call the ‘Declaration of freedom for people with disabilities’,” he told delegates at the opening of the
World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) assembly in Geneva.

“It’s a call to action, a plan that will empower the independence of people with disabilities by providing them with the tools to learn and grow,” he said.

Wonder said millions of intellectually capable disabled people are being deprived of information and knowledge essential for their education and other opportunities.

The Motown legend struck a chord with the grey-suited diplomats and legal experts, eliciting humming and hesitant singing to classics like “I Just Called
to Say I Love You”, “My Cherie Amour” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life”.

“I gave the example with the songs, people know the songs because they were able to hear them,” he told journalists afterwards.

“There are people who have probably even far more to offer than myself who are locked into this kind of prison because information is not available to them,” he said.

WIPO’s 184 members are at loggerheads over broader access to copyrighted material for people with disabilities that would allow it to be copied more readily into braille for the blind or provided in an accessible digital and audio form.

About 314 million blind or visually impaired people alone stand to benefit, according to the agency.

One of Wonder’s aides estimated that five per cent of printed materials and books are available in a readable form for the blind or visually impaired in
industralised nations, and just one per cent in developing countries.

African nations, Latin American countries, the European Union, and the United States are among those that tabled different approaches for an agreement at WIPO. The agency first put the issue on the table 16 years ago.

The World Blind Union endorsed Stevie Wonder’s call, backing a proposal by Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay as the “best hope for a speedy solution to eradicate the book famine.”

Wonder told the assembly: “I promise you, if you can (agree) between now and next year this time, I’ll come back and do an incredible celebration concert: it’s on you, do what you have got to do.”

The U.S. performer said he was making a serious bid to drive broader improvements for disabled people motivated by the opportunities he enjoyed in the United States.

“It represents something that I have felt for so long,” the 60-year-old said, explaining that he became aware of the plight of others while travelling the
world during his performing career.

Of his own situation, he said: “Musically it wasn’t so difficult, I really started music by ear.”

“As to information, because of the system in the United States I was able to learn braille, study and go to school as normal children do.”

“At the age of 13 I was accepted into the Michigan School for the Blind where I . . . had a teacher who travelled with me when I was on the road,” said
Wonder, whose first recording contracts came at the age of 11.

“He really made information accessible or available to me. I will never forget that on my birthday, when I was like 15, he would help me up the stairs all
the way up to the top of the Statue of Liberty.”

Wonder drew a parallel between the needs of the disabled and affirmative action that allowed African-Americans in the United States to gain equal access
to “quality” education.

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