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It Isn’t Easy to Read a Book When You’re Blind, But This Rocket Scientist Figured It Out

by Hana Schank

September 18, 2015
A blind man reads a book on a handheld device. Screenshot via Benetech.

In 1979, Jim Fruchterman was making pattern recognition systems to blow up targets for smart bombs. This was back when he was still a student at Caltech, long before he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” or served as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, or the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (America’s premier hub for particle physics.)

So Fruchterman wasn’t entirely sure yet how to use pattern recognition for social good—perhaps by identifying words or letterforms instead of  tanks and bridges. But he figured it out eventually. And today, Fruchterman is out of the rocket science game entirely: He’s the CEO and founder of Benetech, one of a handful of organizations working to improve access to literacy, books, education, and the world at large for the blind and visually impaired.

There remains a perception that visually impaired readers run their fingers over pages when reading. And that was certainly true in 1963, when 51 percent of the over 1 million legally blind Americans used Braille as their primary reading medium. But today, that number has fallen to less than 10 percent. Even with an increase in tablets and mobile phones, reading remains a struggle for the visually impaired: How does one keep one’s place on the page? Take notes? Get truly lost in an amazing story?

These are the kinds of questions Fruchterman asked himself when developing the digital library Bookshare, which provides access to over 300,000 free books for those with vision impairments.sing digital books created through optical character recognition technology, Bookshare and its companion app, Read2Go, reads books aloud to users while the relevant words are highlighted on a screen. For those with low levels of sight, this means they’re able to track where they are in a story—as well as read along, depending on their level of vision—all while being assisted by the audio, which lessens the burden on their eyes.

For the blind, there are perks, too: The devices are more ergonomic; it’s possible to stop and go at one’s own pace; the books aren’t limited to only the few deemed “worthy” of being read aloud by volunteers. Eliminating the need for a human interpreter means an exponential increase in the number of titles available, as well as the option to choose the reader’s voice.

Readers in over 50 countries currently have access to Bookshare, though Fruchterman one day hopes to spread the technology to many more—although navigating the unique circumstances in developing countries has proved to be a challenge. For Fruchterman, Bookshare isn’t just about ease of use: It’s about giving everyone the gift of literacy.

The hardest part so far has had nothing to do with evolving technologies or frustrating educational policies. Instead, it comes down to a weird quirk in media law. Differences in international copyright mean that books scanned into Bookshare’s library in one country can’t necessarily be accessed in another. 

“If one person in the U.S. has scanned a book, why should anyone else do that again?” Fruchterman says. So he was pleased two years ago when 82 countries signed a treaty to that effect in Marrakesh, Morocco. So far, nine nations have ratified the treaty—but before it can go into effect, 20 countries must ratify. Fruchterman has faith that’ll happen some time next year.

In the meantime, Bookshare has been exploring opportunities and challenges presented by the developing world’s unique cultural and social mores. Many societies don’t acknowledge the difference between relatively mild visual impairments and being completely blind. And handling such sensitive misunderstandings about differently abled people is best left to organizations less interested in the power of the technology than in the reason the technology has become necessary.

Sightsavers in Senegal. Screenshot via Sightsavers.

In Dakar, Senegal, the UK-based organization Sightsavers first began a pilot program in 2011 to help improve access to education for blind and visually impaired children. For Sightsavers, any barriers in West Africa had nothing to do with international copyright law, according to Astou Sarr, who manages the inclusive education programs in Sightsavers’ Senegal office.

“Parents think their children have two options: Go in the street and beg, or stay in the house [because] they don’t want people to know they have a child with a visual impairment,” says Sarr. “The first thing is to say: You have another option. Children with visual impairments can go to school.”

Working with Senegal’s Ministry of Education and the local media, Sightsavers established a program to both locate children with visual impairments and raise awareness that they could be educated alongside their fully sighted peers. Sightsavers then trained teachers on appropriate methods for working with the visually impaired, and in 2011 the first inclusive schools in Senegal opened their doors to 11 children with impairments ranging from low vision to complete blindness. 

That first year, the youngest children in the impaired group were 12 years old—and had never attended school before. Today, three Sightsavers schools serve 141 blind and low-vision students. The youngest in attendance are 6 years old—a good sign that word is reaching the people who need it, says Sarr.

Sightsavers’ Senegal schools offer limited technology to their students—the main focus is on providing free corrective surgery and glasses to them in order to get their visual acuity to the highest possible level. So efforts consist primarily of out-of-favor tools for writing and reading Braille, or simple magnifiers for enlarging words. In some cases, the most powerful technology in the room is a thick pencil, which can help make words darker and easier to see. 

Even so, the program appears to have had a positive impact on the mindsets of local residents. Salimata Bocoum, a senior program manager in the Senegal office, says that parents are now helping to identify other families with visually impaired or blind children who would benefit from inclusive schooling. And in the classrooms, she’s witnessed fully sighted children helping their visually impaired counterparts by reading from the board. Even more inspiring: Visually impaired students are helping those who can see with their learning problems. 

For now, Sightsavers is primarily focused on making education inclusive, while Benetech is handling the access to the books themselves. One day, the hope is that this kind of smart technology and sensitive, hands-on learning methods will combine efforts to increase access to literacy for everyone around the world. 

Though by then, if Fruchterman has his way, Bookshare may no longer be around. His hope is that the technology Bookshare employs will become so universally available that his library will become obsolete. Since pretty much all publically available books today originate in a digital format, he thinks they should simply stay digital, which would then allow for accessibility features to be integrated as a standard feature of the product. 

“If anything is born digital, it should be born accessible,” Fruchterman says, adding that unknown future is all part of the fun. “If you’re an IT person, your hope is that 10 years from now you’re solving different problems than you are today.” And that a decade on, global illiteracy for the visually impaired will be as uncommon as Braille.

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It Isn’t Easy to Read a Book When You’re Blind, But This Rocket Scientist Figured It Out