[AI] Taking Books to the Disabled
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Sun Apr 27 06:32:50 EDT 2008
Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Apr 27, 2008
Taking books to the disabled
— Photo: R. Shivaji Rao
James R. Fruchterman.
Students start out with ideas to benefit the deprived and the poor, but
often, the need for material benefits propels them away from altruistic
thoughts. Some, however, revisit their ideas and work on them.
One such person who carried forward his idea of helping the blind read is
James R. Fruchterman (Jim), president of Benetech Initiative, U.S. During
his recent visit to Chennai, R. Sujatha spoke to him about his plans for
Jim was fascinated with military intelligence technology as a student at
the California Institute of Technology. He wondered if a particular
technology, used to pick out an object and blow it up, could be used to
pick out words and enhance them. The idea remained in his head but it was
several years before he could act on it. After working as an electronic
engineer in a rocket company where the push of a button led to a rocket
blowing up before take off, he was back in Silicon Valley pondering over
his idea of helping the visually impaired.
His boss from the rocket company was also part of the character
recognition company that Jim set up with an investment of $25 million. But
investors wanted returns and were not pleased with the idea of social
service efforts, such as developing reading systems for the visually
The seed for his project, sown in 1982, bore fruit in 1989 when he founded
Arkenstone, a non-profit organisation. It became the world’s largest
provider of reading systems serving 35,000 persons with disabilities in 60
countries. Ten years later, he sold the $5 billion enterprise and used it
to launch Benetech Initiative in 2000.
One December evening in 1999, when he returned from work, he found new
software installed in his personal computer. Upset that someone had
tampered with his computer, he wanted to know who had done it. His
14-year-old son owned up and played Jim’s favourite music using Napster
and Jim was hooked. “He spent a whole hour with me. That’s a miracle and I
learnt a very cool technology,” he recalls.
He decided to do the same with books. “What my son did was illegal but
getting books to the blind is legal.” And he set up Bookshare.
Today, Bookshare.org is the world’s largest online book library for
persons with disabilities. The library offers them membership at
subsidised rates and provides 3,000 current copyrighted books (published
over the last 20 years) and 4,000 public domain books, including those
published since 1923. All major American newspapers are also available.
Bookshare has fiction and non-fiction, trade books, 1,000 Spanish books,
700 IT books and 100 children’s books.
Mr. Fruchterman says he wants to take the tools to people who need them
most. “The visually impaired in India will pay Rs.400 to sign up and read
books. I am meeting publishers to scan books and text books for Indian
readers. It is better you have a clear exemption [in copy right laws for
such organisations]” he points out. His company has already tied up with a
couple of Indian publishers.
“Publishers have a social responsibility,” he says. “Today we are in India
where we were in the U.S. six years ago. In a few years in India, we will
have 20,000 books, best sellers and educational text books.”
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