I-Stem: AI-powered platform for students with disabilities

I-Stem is part of UNICEF’s Innovation Fund Investments in Skills and Connectivity

Kartik Sawhney
Girls with hearing disability react outside their classroom at a bridge school in ,KGBV ( Tharthari)
UNICEF/UNI141630/Vishwanathan
13 July 2020

When I began exploring post-secondary studies in engineering in India in 2012, I realized there were very few universities and colleges in the country that had robust experience providing support services for a blind engineering student or students with disabilities. When I embarked for studies in the United States, I realized there were dedicated disability offices to cater to students with disabilities and very clearly defined processes in place. Yet, most of the work was manual with little innovation in the space. This inspired my friends and I to start I-Stem

I-Stem addresses inefficiency at existing disability offices and the lack of suitable accommodations and resources for students with disabilities in India and other developing countries.

A screenshot of the I-Stem portal.
I-Stem
A screenshot of the I-Stem portal.

At I-Stem, our vision is to empower over 1.3 billion people with disabilities to pursue their desired academic and professional pursuits through a combination of technology, community and support services around the world. 

Our team is developing an AI-powered content accessibility platform which includes conversion of visual inaccessible documents into accessible formats for the blind and visually impaired, and real-time captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. These features are accompanied by a platform that manages the provision of these services for the relevant institutes/organization’s students and employees with disabilities. 


FRONTIER TECHNOLOGY 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a core component of our technology solution.Through AI we automate the conversion of images into text and audio, and support highly accurate customized speech recognition. Despite very encouraging initial results from our models, we realize that AI is not perfect which is why we also provide manual remediation to fix any errors guaranteeing 100% accuracy to our users. 

Our hybrid model sets us apart from other organizations using either manual or completely automated approaches. While automation might be considered a solution to a manual approach that results in extremely long turnaround times, an automated approach does not provide high accuracy — especially for technical content.


OPEN SOURCE 

Our solution caters directly to educational institutes and businesses by providing them platforms to manage and deliver services in a seamless fashion. Our company acknowledges that not one company nor technical innovation can bring about a radical difference given the several challenges and varied needs facing people with disabilities. To ensure that our technology appropriately and effectively addresses the aspirations and needs of our users, we prioritize a close working relationship with a community of developers and value co-creation with people with disability.


TEAM 

To address underrepresentation of people with disabilities and other communities, we have committed to ensuring their diverse representation in our development, design and operational processes. Our inclusive team consists primarily of people with disabilities who understand first-hand the challenges our solution addresses. We bring a combination of technical and accessibility experience. For example, our teammates have professional experience as employees with disabilities at companies such as Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Uber and IBM. We are also joined by highly technical and entrepreneurial UX researchers, marketing professionals, engineers and scientists that are committed to inclusion.

Inauguration of Inclusive Stem Confluence 2020, I-Stem's annual event.
I-Stem
Inauguration of Inclusive Stem Confluence 2020, I-Stem's annual event.

We share a passion for democratizing inclusive education. We have been recognized by the Queen of England, The UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, the President of India as well as several other prestigious national entrepreneurship awards including Eureka 2020 (organized by Indian Institute of Technology Bombay) and Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, and others for our work in the disability space. We have published papers on inclusion and accessibility in some of the most prominent accessibility and HCI conferences and have presented at the United Nations to bring about key policy changes that now allow all blind students in India to pursue sciences in the 11th grade.


THE WAY AHEAD

We are thrilled to be selected for the UNICEF Innovation Fund and are excited to join the network of other innovators working for social impact. We are especially looking forward to the support and mentorship as part of this program that will help us refine our product from a prototype to a launched product as well as our business strategy. This in turn will help us scale our impact and business, thus becoming more competitive for follow-on funding and investments. We are also eager to ensure that our frontier technology solution is accessible to everyone- especially people with disabilities.

We will leverage this opportunity to collaborate with other innovators within the Skills and Connectivity cohort and broader network, both working on disability issues and otherwise, to realize our vision of a more equitable world.