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On a Mission to Give the Disabled the Moon

April 30 2009 | by


Rocket scientist. Assistive technology pioneer. Entrepreneur-turned-social-activist. It’s nearly impossible to sum up the influence that Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman has bequeathed to the disability field. And he’s far from done yet. Years after developing one of the first reading machines for the blind, he established Bookshare, the online library for people with print disabilities. These days, Fruchterman is also helping to lead Raising the Floor, an initiative to bring Internet access to the world’s disabled and economically disadvantaged people.

Q: Jim, Bookshare just announced a groundbreaking partnership with U.S. colleges and universities to provide digital books to students with print disabilities. How did students access books before this program?
In the past, the school or the student had to scan the book, or the publisher had to supply a digital version of the book. Alternatively, a volunteer would actually sit and read the book aloud to the student. These options take time, and students were often getting their books weeks or months after they needed them, or not at all. Our goal [with this new program] is to cut this delay out, improve the quality of the books, and eliminate duplicated work as much as possible.

Q: You’re working closely with the U.S. Department of Education on this project. Have they acknowledged that delays of textbooks are a critical issue?
The Department of Education has given us a five-year grant to help tackle this problem. Through this grant we can provide Bookshare’s services for free to all students with print disabilities in the U.S., as well as to schools and agencies serving these students. This has enabled us to grow incredibly quickly. We promised to serve 100,000 students over five years, and it looks like we’ll be able to serve many more than that.

Q: How many books are we talking about?
We already have 46,000 titles and we’re growing at a rate of 1,000 books per month. A year from now, we’re hoping that colleges can find 20 percent of the books they need already in Bookshare. In two years we’d like this to grow to 40 percent. I talked to a blind leader yesterday whose wife, who also is blind, is studying for her master’s degree. She found one-third of the books she needed already on Bookshare.

Q: How did you get the publishers to agree to give you the books in digital format?
Chiefly by asking! There are other key factors involved. First, our users don’t buy print books because they can’t read them, so they aren’t a market. Second, we’ve spent the last eight years working closely with publishers, and we’ve built up a lot of trust and goodwill around our work. And third, we operate under a copyright exemption so we’ve already established that we can [convert] the books ourselves. We’re asking the publishers to save us the steps of scanning, [converting it to a digital text file] and proofreading. We have agreements with 26 publishers, including HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, O’Reilly Media, Perseus Books Group, Random House, Scholastic and Townsend Press. The majority of titles on The New York Times Best Sellers’ Lists are covered by the agreements.

Q: The New York Times has called your company, Benetech, one of the new “hybrid” technology organizations that blend a non-profit social mission with a for-profit mindset. How does this work?
We’re a social enterprise. We’re set up like a business that solves social problems. We’re actually organized as a non-profit, but internally we look like a regular high-tech company. It’s just that we choose our products based on social return, not financial return. Benetech makes software products and services for human rights and environmental activists and organizations, as well as products for people with disabilities, like Bookshare. Although we’re organized as a charity, we consider the communities we work with as our customers and active partners in social change, not passive recipients of beneficence.

Q: Benetech also is working with a group of like-minded people on Raising the Floor, an initiative to make Internet technology and content available to everyone in the world, regardless of ability or economic resources. What’s the philosophy behind this project?
The web is where things are happening today: Look at Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. We think the web should work equally well for everybody — not just young, literate, rich, non-disabled English speakers. We have the technology and content to make the Internet and the Web accessible to everybody, and we need to use it. Most people with disabilities in the world have dirt when it comes to access to technology and content. We think there should be a basic level, a floor that everybody gets, that gives them a strong foundation to build on for education and employment. If you become economically empowered as a person with a disability, you’re highly likely to purchase access technology and services to make your life better.

Q: Those are big shoes to fill — where do you even start?
We can’t do it all, but we can help to catalyze this larger movement. One of the ways we’re doing this is by advocating for open source technologies. Much of the Web and the Internet are built on open source solutions by people who realized that this model is good for society and business. We want to extend that model to improved access for the disabled and the economically disadvantaged. At Benetech, we’ll keep focusing on the areas we know best. For example, we’re working with the Mozilla Foundation to make an electronic-book reader plugin that will work in the Firefox Web browser. Tomorrow’s e-book readers could very well be the platform for reading all types of digital publications. An web browser with built-in text-to-speech would be hugely beneficial for people with print disabilities.

Q: I’ve heard you say that mobile-phone technology will play an important role in the future of Internet access for this population. How so?
Not everyone has a personal computer, but half of the humans on the planet have cell phones, and these are often used as a key part of making a living. Telecommunications makes life better in so many ways. We believe that the cell phones of the next couple of years could speak for the person who can’t speak, read for the person who can’t read, listen for the person who can’t hear and remember for the person who can’t remember. Whether it’s disability, youth, age, minority status or language, you shouldn’t have needless barriers to education, employment, health or social inclusion.

Q: You’re a former rocket scientist. Are you ever going back to that job?
My rocket blew up on the launch pad. I’m happier now developing software that causes much less damage when it blows up. But I wouldn’t mind going into space at some point!

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