Graeme Innes AM is an Australian company director, lawyer, public speaker, confirmed
cricket tragic, and book worm. He has been a human rights practitioner for 30 years in NSW
and Western Australia and has participated in the development of national and international
human rights instruments.
Graeme was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner from December 2005 until
July 2014. During that time he also served as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner for
3.5 years and as Race Discrimination Commissioner for 2 years.
Graeme describes himself as a voracious reader despite experiencing many challenges to
accessing books for study, work and pleasure across his life. In this article he shares the
print disability community’s challenges in accessing books and calls on Australian publishers
to become inclusive publishers not least because he can then read his beloved cricket
“I loved reading as a kid. I grew up in a family that read a lot and my parents would read to
the three of us out loud. One of my motivations for learning to read and write Braille was so
that I could read books. I did that at an early age. I used to get very excited at the clunk of
the cane basket being delivered on our verandah when the next bunch of books from the
Royal Blind Society in large scale Braille books arrived. And I also borrowed significantly
from the school library when I was going to school – so books have always been a significant
part of my life.
I didn’t have a particular genre that I loved the most. The challenge I had was that there was
a very limited range of books in Braille so you tended to read what was there and available.
I’ve always liked detective, mystery and science fiction. I still read those where I can. I
remember reading a book from the school library called Guy of Warwick. It was an adventure
about a knight in England, which as a young boy was exciting.
As a voracious reader, I read out the school and Royal Blind Society in most of their books. I
also read a lot of cricket books. The ABC cricket book used to be put into Braille every year,
but it’s not done now, sadly. It’s a book that used to be available to those with a print
disability but it’s not now and that’s disappointing. It was something I looked forward to at the
beginning of summer to be able to read that material. ABC cutbacks deemed it too much to
produce around about 10 years ago. I would love to have that available again. I have bought
the magazine and seen what I could do to read it, but the way it is laid out, it is too hard to
The way to read has changed over time. I initially read in Braille and then I read what were
called Talking Books. I originally read them on a large machine where you had to place the
cassette on top of the machine. They were recorded in 30, 40, 50 tracks per book. And then
the machines got to a smaller size, to the size of a video cassette – before DVD. Then we got
the audio cassette books. They were usually recorded more slowly in four track format so
there was another specific machine to do that. All the while I was still reading Braille books,
mind you. And then there was audiobooks on CD and CD players to read those books. For
the past five years I’ve downloaded books onto a player served up over the internet. A little more than 15 years ago I moved from paper Braille to paperless Braille, which is a computer
with a Braille display.
I was just thinking the other day that I haven’t sat with a Braille book on my lap for over a
decade. I have gone through all of those changes in reading. The current formats are the
most flexible and there are more books than when I was a kid. I am comfortable with
paperless Braille. It’s nice to read Braille on paper but it’s not critical. I also read a lot now in
audiobook using a small player that sits in the palm of my hand. And I also use an iPhone
extensively where I read Audible books.
All throughout my life I have experienced significant difficulty in getting access to the books I
have wanted to read. There’s about 1 per cent of print books that are available in formats
that I can use. I can’t tell you the number of books that I have heard about at the water
cooler stations that I’ve wanted to read when they were released and I’ve had to wait 18
months to 2 years for. Sometimes I’ve never read those books because by the time they
become available the time has passed or I’ve forgotten about them.
The ability for me to go into a bookshop or a library and pick up the books and look at the
pictures on the front covers and choose a book is something I’ve never had and is a
continuing sadness in my life. The ABC cricket book is one, but I would struggle to list all the
books I’ve wanted to read but couldn’t. Every time a sci fi or detective and mystery book or
series has come out I would have bought that book. I suspect that I am thousands to tens of
thousands of dollars richer than I would have been had I had access to books. I would have
been very prepared to spend money on them, so the publishing industry has missed out on
my contributions because they haven’t published inclusively.
To get access to books I have scoured around the internet trying to find ways to get them –
unauthorised ways I admit – websites where people have bought a book and then scanned it
and uploaded it onto the internet. I have sat for hours at the scanner, turning page by page a
book scanning it so I can read it. I’ve networked with my friends that are vision impaired
across the world where we have shared with each other countless books in various formats.
I used to scan the ABC cricket magazine every year before the set out became too difficult
and I would share with around 20 to 40 people. And that’s why I half joke, that the publishing
industry has missed out on a lot of dollars by not publishing inclusively. All of us would have
gone and bought that magazine.
When I was at university I did the same thing with law books. I had volunteers spend hours
putting books onto Braille or reading them onto first reel-to-reel audio and then cassette
tapes and even then I only had 10-20 per cent of all the books that my fellow students could
use. I would go to the library and borrow books and cases that I needed and sit at the old
Kerswill machine and download them onto a computer just to access those books.
My strategy was to know the material that I did have very well, rather than having the wide-
ranging material that others may have. That’s how I got through my law degree. It didn’t
mean it took me longer to do my degree but it meant that I spent a whole lot less nights out
doing the social side of university than most other students did. There were numerous
occasions when I got my books and notes far later than other students and my degree is not a strong degree. Fifteen passes and two credits. I would assert I would have got a much
better degree if I’d got access to the materials much sooner.
It’s true that problem solving and accepting the situation is what you have to do when you
have a print disability. One of the first pieces of advocacy and radicalising in the disability
space that I did was to lobby the Royal Blind Society to create a student services area for uni
students in the library separate to the recreational areas, as we needed the books as more
of a priority over those reading for pleasure. When I was at university the Braille and audio
production process was that you put your book requests on a list and waited. I know people
that have waited for them to be returned months and in some cases even years after they
needed them. There was no engagement at all by the publishing industry. The only
engagement is Vision Australia and the equivalents and these organisations weren’t very
good at sharing materials across organisations and states. I had heard about materials being
available in other states but couldn’t get access to it.
It was absolutely that blind people had to accept that you couldn’t get access to books, or
you had to wait a long time to get your turn. I was not on my own searching for literature and
material. We pirated copies of books and if we had stood at the scanner for five or six hours
– we weren’t going to let that go to waste so would share the scans. There’s a lot of
conversation in the community about getting hold of books. It is getting less and less as
getting access is easier. But I was a member of a website where books had been scanned
unlawfully. We were careful in how we shared information as we knew we were breaching
copyright law but we thought it was an acceptable thing to do because we couldn’t get
access any other way.
The sooner publishers can make changes the better. I have advocated in the past for
publishers to make books born-accessible due to the cost of reproducing books being
prohibitive. Charities have been trying to help for decades and still only a few books are
available. We just need the publishing sector to do this. I was a strong advocate of the WIPO
process and I have a jaundiced view of the sector as I hadn’t seen much cooperation to
make materials available to everyone. I want to see runs on the board. It’s happening a bit
but it’s still pretty unusual to get a book published inclusively. The books I now read from the
Vision Australia library are from Audible.com and Book Share which works in conjunction
with publishers. Publishers are cooperative, but it’s still an alternative format. It’s not
publishers publishing inclusively. I can’t think of a major publisher where I’ve read the book
and it’s been published inclusively by the publisher and not by someone separate.
The main advantage I saw of working with WIPO is that they would convince organisations
like Vision Australia, including ones overseas, to share their collections. I thought working
with the publishing industry would work eventually but it’s been a much longer process.
If I had an elevator pitch to share with publishers it would be that you’re missing out on
people buying your material and all of the stories I’ve told about scanning and sharing and
breaching your copyright is going on with a segment of the community because you’re not
producing things for everyone.
As a person who has been blind since birth there are things you know you are missing out
on and it’s not something you get maudlin about, it is sad, but you get on with the things you have in life. After the capacity to be able to look at the faces of my family and my close
friends the next thing I have missed out on is to be able to read what I want, when I want.
To be able to walk down the street look at the front covers of magazines and books, and
think that looks interesting, and dip into it. To walk into a bookshop or library would be a
wonderful and enriching experience; one that I’ve never fully had in my life. I hope that by
the end of my life I get to a point where I am able to be included in that experience, but it’s
an experience I have been excluded from and missed out on.”
Graeme Innes’ book can be purchased in a variety variety of formats here.