How blindness did not stop these youngsters from being a techie

Despite his blindness, Kartik Sawhney was close to living his dream. A Class XII student in 2012, he pursued science with the passion of a child chasing the rainbow on a drizzly evening.

Just as he expected the doors of the haloed tech institutions to open, they slammed on his face quite unexpectedly. "I was the topper in computer science at school (DPS-RK Puram, Delhi)," Sawhney, who recently completed his MS degree with Stanford University, told DH.

"I wanted to write JEE on a computer, but the IITs said it would be a security issue. They nonetheless assured to consider my request positively. But in the end, I was told that writing JEE would not be possible," he said, hastening to add that the premier institutes have since changed their rules to accommodate the blind.

Sawhney is on his way to taking up a job with Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, USA, but he would regard a level playing field for persons with blindness in pursuing science as a true accomplishment.

"From the school level, we've been told time and again that science and technology, as subjects, are beyond the abilities of the blind. Teachers tell us music or humanities would be the best. At the lowest point in Class 12, I had suggestions that civil services would be the best option for me. We'd like to change this idea," he said.

Sawhney joined hands with fellow blind persons to create I-STEM, a self-advocacy group that likes to lead by example. Ten of its members, all youngsters, are students of tech programmes at IITs, IIITs and NITs across the country. In their free time, they go around the country sensitising teachers and institutions on the need for science education for the blind.

One of them, Abhisar Wagmore, survived a deadly fungal infection that ate away his optic nerves and very nearly conquered his brain. "I suffered facial injuries after a high-speed bike crash in 2014," Wagmore said, adding quickly, "It's not me, but my cousin's friend who enjoys the thrill of riding bikes. I was only in the pillion."

Blinded in both eyes, he subsequently pursued his Class XII and scored an incredible 83%, cleared his JEE and is now a first-year computer science student at the Sardar Vallabhai Patel National Institute of Technology in Surat.

Sawhney reached out to Vidhya Y, the first blind student to graduate from IIITB in MSc in the Digital Society programme, to organise a hackathon and practically show how the blind are not inferior when it comes to coding.

"Just one school in the city teaches science for the blind," Vidhya, who co-founded Vision Empower with researcher and sighted peer Supriya Dey, said. "Our idea is to apply technology in educating the blind in science and mathematics."

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