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Realizing limitless possibilities: Technology empowers people with disabilities

By Kartik Sawhney 

 
It was 2001 when I started out at a mainstream primary school in India. Having attended a special school for the blind until then, I found the new school challenging and daunting. I had no idea how to interact with my peers and teachers, or simply how to adapt to the new environment. I completed my homework in Braille, and every day my mother patiently transcribed it into print so that my teachers could understand it. None of them had expertise in teaching blind students, yet their support and encouragement, along with that of my parents, helped me to excel and have a great experience.
The next year, my life changed completely. I was exposed to a computer – an amazing computer that could speak to me. I would spend the entire day playing with it, only to be even more amazed with every new feature I found. My introduction to the Web and the prospect of getting whatever information I needed by pressing the Enter key was unbelievable and empowering.
As I grew fond of this new toy, I wanted to understand it more deeply. How could my computer in India get information from a computer at Google headquarters in the United States? How could I watch TV shows on my computer? How did it know what websites I'd be interested in without me necessarily typing them? These questions encouraged me to start reading textbooks on computer science and computer programming in the sixth grade, which allowed me to start developing an application that could help me be more efficient. While a lot of these were simple apps that helped me apply my knowledge, others were born of my frustration at not being able to have the same learning experience as my peers.
In the 11th grade, for example, I could not understand graphs and curves in my calculus class. Despite several attempts to visualize these based on their verbal descriptions, I was unable to picture them well. I almost gave up, until I was struck by an idea that combined my passion for music and tech. Thus was born Audio Graph Describer, software that converts a graph into its tonal representation. Visualizing a graph through variation in frequencies not only allowed me to understand the complicated graphs that once distressed me, but helped rekindle my interest in math and science. This is the power of technology!
As I continued with school, my interest in tech increased. I knew I wanted to study computer science in college in order to develop technology that can empower people to realize their potential. Once there, I met others who shared a similar vision. In the United States, I was pleasantly surprised to meet several developers with disabilities, since there are few in India. With firsthand experience about everyday challenges, I found them well equipped to brainstorm, conceptualize and implement transformative ideas to enhance accessibility for the disabled community. I have been fortunate to try out several of these ideas – from a pair of augmented reality glasses that allow a volunteer to describe things a blind user sees in real time, to an app that uses computer vision to help with object and text recognition and scene descriptions; from a wheelchair that uses eye gaze to move around, to tremendous advances in real-time automated captioning.

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As a young person passionate about technology and disability advocacy, these technologies excite me more than ever, and I can't wait for other revolutionary technologies in the near future that will reduce the word ‘disability’ to a mere nuisance.
While recent and upcoming technology has been very helpful, there are still concerns that need our attention. Most people with disabilities around the world are consumers of this technology, but not innovators. As is evident from several successful engineers with disabilities, disability is no barrier to technical excellence. Thus, there is a dire need to encourage and, more importantly, provide necessary support and resources to help people with disabilities consider technology as a potential career avenue.
Similarly, several applications and websites fail to comply with accessibility standards, compelling more than 1 billion people with disabilities around the world to miss out. This is due not just to lack of accessibility training, but also disability awareness. It thus becomes important to intensify our efforts in this space. I look forward to all of us working in our own little ways to truly realize the limitless possibilities of technology.
Kartik Sawhney

Kartik Sawhney is pursuing a Master of Science in Computer Science at Stanford University with a focus on artificial intelligence. His technical interests lie in machine learning, natural language processing, accessibility and assistive technologies.

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