GOOD’s Project Literacy Features Benetech’s Efforts to Improve Access to Books for the Blind and Visually Impaired

By Benetech, posted on

In the article “It Isn’t Easy to Read a Book When You’re Blind, But This Rocket Scientist Figured It Out,” author Hana Schank describes Jim Fruchterman’s journey from engineer to founder and CEO of Benetech, an organization working to improve access to literacy, books, education, and the world at large for the blind and visually impaired. Today, less than 10% of the over one million legally blind Americans use Braille as their primary reading medium, compared to 50% in 1963. More visually impaired individuals are turning to tablets and mobile phones, but the lack of accessibility features means that reading still remains a struggle for many.

To solve this challenge, Fruchterman developed the accessible online library Bookshare, which provides access to over 360,000 free books for those with vision impairments and other qualifying disabilities. More than 350,000 readers in over 50 countries currently have access to Bookshare, with ongoing efforts to expand to other countries. The article cites initiatives by other nonprofit organizations such as Sightsavers to improve access to education for blind and visually impaired children in West Africa. 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.

Bookshare isn’t just about ease of use: It’s about giving everyone the gift of literacy. “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.”

The complete article is available online in GOOD, a magazine for the global citizen.