January 2007 Issue  Volume 8  Number 1


Celebrating the Naming of a Genius: An Interview with Jim Fruchterman

Imagine that you are away from home at a professional conference when you get a call on your cell phone. The phone's caller ID feature tells you that it is someone you know, so you step out into the hall to take the call. "Hi, Mary," you greet your colleague.

But it is not a woman. It is a man you have never met who has called to tell you that you have just been granted half a million dollars, no strings attached, not to mention that you have been dubbed a genius!

That is what happened to Jim Fruchterman, cofounder of Arkenstone and Bookshare.org. That was the way he was notified, on September 13, 2006, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that he had been chosen as one of 25 individuals who are named each year as MacArthur Fellows, each receiving a "no strings attached" grant of $500,000 to further their work.

Fruchterman was happy to be on the cover of the November 2001 issue of AccessWorld , and we were happy to put him there, so it seemed appropriate that we should catch up with him to find out more. For those of you who have known or encountered Fruchterman, the good news is that he is still the same creative, high-energy, slightly irreverent, and genuinely humble social entrepreneur that so many in the assistive technology community have come to know and love. He is still chasing after a plethora of innovative ways to use existing technologies to make the world a better place for disadvantaged people, but his vision now embraces not only those who are blind or have low vision, but people with other disabilities and people who are deprived by poverty, illiteracy, war, and a host of other social injustices. The only apparent difference is that he now has more financial resources to pursue his dreams of improving life and changing history in a more aggressive manner.

Carving His Niche Among People Who Are Blind

In 1989, Fruchterman founded Arkenstone, the nonprofit company that launched OpenBook, an optical character recognition program that eventually found its way into 60 countries, translating scanned print into spoken text for people who could not read books. Other products of that first company included Atlas Speaks and Strider, the forerunners of GPS (global positioning system) technology for people who are blind.

When Arkenstone was sold in the three-company merger that became Freedom Scientific, Fruchterman apparently sat back for awhile to figure out what other interesting projects he might pursue. From his new company, Benetech, came the answer: Bookshare.org. Sparked by the coincidence of his own teenager having a friend whose parent had launched Napster (an Internet-based sharing of music), Fruchterman's idea was to create a vehicle for people with visual or learning disabilities to share books that are scanned for individual use. Just six years later, Bookshare.org boasts some 30,000 titles and a goal of 10,000 members by 2008. Initially for use by U.S. citizens only, because of copyright laws, Bookshare.org is actively pursuing extending access to the collection to people around the world. Fruchterman immediately heard from "gallons and gallons of Canadians," as he put it, and knew that globalization was essential. To date, there are about a thousand books in Spanish and another thousand technical books offering global access. Fruchterman has enlisted help from a pro bono branch of Lex Mundi, a collaborative of law firms that are dedicated to excellence, in obtaining global permissions from a growing number of publishers.

Fruchterman believes that getting a book should be as easy for someone who is blind as it is for someone who is sighted and that books should be available to everyone. His own love of books dates back to his adolescence, when he remembers reading almost one science fiction book a day. "I'd do my homework fast and then spend the next few hours ripping through a science fiction book," he said.

Route 66

Fruchterman's focus on literacy has led to yet another project, called Route 66 Literacy. A collaborative effort between the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Benetech, Route 66 Literacy is a web-based service that will enable volunteers anywhere to become reading tutors, sharing literacy with adolescents and adults. Conceived by Dr. Karen Erickson, the program is built upon proved instructional methods and uses materials that are relevant to teenagers and adults. The program was being beta tested in late November 2006 and is expected to launch in early 2007.

And no, that is definitely not all. The day after Thanksgiving 2006, Fruchterman was on his way to India and Bangladesh--an exciting first, he said--where he planned to meet with various organizations that are involved with technology, people who are blind, and anywhere where his ideas might take root. This is the beginning of what Fruchterman hopes will be many trips to nations around the world where there are poor people, high illiteracy rates, and the opportunity to bring positive change.

Many more ideas fill his admittedly full plate--including a landmine detector for war-torn countries, an inexpensive screen reader, and a plan to write a book that would invite other Silicon Valley technology leaders to join him on the social entrepreneurial bandwagon. Of greatest interest to AccessWorld readers, however, is probably Fruchterman's dream of an inexpensive cell phone that could deliver audio books and act as a GPS device.

"I'm not talking about a $500 phone," he stressed. "I'm talking about a phone that lots of people could afford, including poor people, not just employed blind people."

Behind the Scenes

When Fruchterman got the surprise call in September, there were two unexpected elements. First, he was not allowed to make the news public for six more days and, second, all he had to do to receive the grant--meted out over five years--was, as he said, "stay alive." He told his wife right away, but not his children. That weekend, he was moving his middle child into the dormitory for his first year of college. When they went to dinner, he recalled how his son looked longingly at the sushi meal on the menu and hesitated over the $22 price. "So I told him to go ahead and have the sushi," Fruchterman laughed, and then shared his big news.

As for the "genius" epithet, Fruchterman is quick to poke fun of himself. "One journalist asked my wife what it was like to live with a genius," he said, "and she just rolled her eyes." Geniuses, of course, look like regular people. This one loves soccer and cycling--and, of course, books. But his jesting became passionate when he began to talk about human rights and the power of technology for people who are blind and about Route 66 Literacy. His first job, Fruchterman told me, was that of rocket scientist. When we listen to just some of his plans for the next few years, it is clear that Fruchterman being named a MacArthur Fellow is cause for all of us to celebrate. And when we look at what he has done thus far, it does not take rocket science to figure out how that happened.

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