Why shouldn’t blind students be able to study what they want?’, Kartik Sawhney found himself asking this in the 10th grade when he had to select an educational track for the rest of his high school in India. Born blind in New Delhi, he developed a strong passion for science and technology, and by 7th grade, was participating in several national and international Science and computer Science olympiads, securing top positions. It was very easy for him to decide that he wanted to study sciences in the 11th grade. But unfortunately, according to the common perception, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the four edges of a geometric figure which is not supposed to be touched by a blind student. The central board of education rejected his application to study science in 11th and 12th grades. His closest friends and mentors advised him to switch tracks. However, he was determined to follow his passion. After 9 months of persuasion, over two dozen fervent appeals, an advocacy campaign, and a personal meeting with the chairman of the Board, he finally secured permission for all blind students across the country to pursue Sciences at the higher secondary level. This was far from the end of his challenges though.
Replete with technical notations and visual inputs, and with no resources or role models to look up to, Science subjects were not easy to manage. He had to develop several conventions and strategies to study these subjects successfully. From typing out all of his textbooks to developing a software that used variation in musical notes to convey the spatial layout of a graph, from developing an alternative convention to represent organic Chemistry molecules for the blind to creating accessible log and periodic tables, every step tested his ingenuity. While science inaccessibility was sometimes frustrating, he was satisfied that he was doing something that would not only benefit him, but the entire community.
Besides inaccessibility of the content, he also had to convince the engineering colleges in the country to admit blind students to their programs. Despite several petitions, letters and meetings over three years, he failed. However, he was unwilling to give up his passion, and decided to apply abroad, and was accepted to Stanford University in 2013.
Once at Stanford, he realized that what happened to him was not a unique case. There was a bigger challenge. Over 1.27 billion people with disabilities are unable to realize their potential, not because of lack of resources, but because of lack of support, encouragement and preconceived notions and biases that continue to prevail in our society. As a Computer Science professional, he has been trying to use technology to break these barriers, providing the necessary support and opportunities through different projects.
A software engineer at Microsoft, Kartik is the co-founder of Inclusive Stem (I-Stem) (inclusivestem.org), an organization that seeks to provide people with disabilities an equal access to tech careers through technical innovation, mentorship and support. Other initiatives that he has worked on include Audio Graph Describer that sonifies a graph to help blind and visually impaired people understand visual and highly quantitative concepts, NextBillion.org (an award-winning mentorship portal that matches people with and without disabilities based on their personal stories) and project STEMAccess that provides new ways of reading and writing math using technology for the blind.
In recognition of his work for the community, Kartik has received several prestigious awards including the Queen’s Young Leaders Award 2016 from Her Majesty The Queen, the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities from the govt. of India, the Sri Sathya Sai Award for Human Excellence in the field of education, among others. he has also been recognized as a UN Young Leader (17 young leaders out of over 8,000 applications) and has also served on the Expert Panel on Technology and Education for the Education Commission alongside six former heads of states and four Nobel laureates.