This week, UK-based global forum One Young World kicks off its tenth annual summit in London with a gathering of the best and brightest young innovators from more than 190 countries around the world. These ambassadors meet with global political and humanitarian leaders to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges, from world hunger to climate change.
Through partnership with One Young World, Lenovo celebrates its own ambassador and Smarter Technology for All scholarship winner, Kartik Sawhney. Co-founder of Inclusive Stem (I-Stem), Kartik leads the start-up organization that works to empower students with disabilities by providing access to resources in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Proper access to STEM resources and education is an ongoing challenge for much of the developing world, and an obstacle that Kartik knows all too well on a personal level.
Blind since birth, Kartik has never had the ability to navigate his world by sight, but his journey from childhood in Delhi, India to a software engineer living in the U.S. is an amazing testimony to his spirit of resolve and his knack for innovating new ways around his challenges – a skill he cultivated through the support of his family.
“Growing up, it was basically just as normal or as general as it could be,” Kartik says. “My parents had this opinion that you have to do everything that everyone else does. We’re going to try and figure it out, like adaptations that you might be able to do some of those visual things better, but for all practical purposes, there should be nothing that you shouldn’t be able to do.”
Kartik began school at the National Association for the Blind, a special school that assisted him with developing blindness-specific skills of mobility, using assistive technologies, and learning Braille, before mainstreaming into public schools. The integration immersed him in a world that would come to challenge and inspire Kartik and his family to develop new ways of approaching tasks that those without visual impairment take for granted.
“In elementary school, when other people would be in an arts class painting or drawing, my mom would actually put wool or thread on the outline and then she’d have me color inside that to make sure I was actually doing something and not just sitting aside, getting bored.”
Improvisations like these would set the tone for much of Kartik’s formative years. With the use of screen readers and other assistive technologies for visual impairment, Kartik’s love of the science that enabled his access to the world began to shine through in middle school. His interest in STEM was further cemented after making friends with National Olympiad students, encouraging him to dig deeper into computer science.
“I was already interested in tech given what it could do for me, and now that I had the company of people who were also interested in those things, it drove me to read more about things like programming and web development.”
In high school, Kartik prepared to declare for the science curriculum track, but his plans were derailed by a school system that didn’t know how to make accommodations for a blind student; Kartik’s application to study science was declined by the country’s board of education.
“The way it works in the Indian education system is, in the 10th grade you’re supposed to choose an educational track – science, commerce or the humanities,” Kartik recalls. “I was confident about my choice. It had to be sciences given my interest in technology – but this had to go through the central board of education for approval because there had never been anyone else with visual disabilities who had ever applied for science. They were like ‘We don’t think you’ll be able to do science’.
But Kartik didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. After nine months and nearly 40 letters to the chairman addressing all of the visual challenges and solutions associated with a science concentration, the board of education revised its programming to permit not only Kartik, but all blind students, to declare for science education. I think the best part was when the news came in a notice saying that all blind students going forward could study science in India. The most satisfying part was that I was able to do something for the entire community and not just for myself.
I think the best part was when the news came in a notice saying that all blind students going forward could study science in India. The most satisfying part was that I was able to do something for the entire community and not just for myself.
Though the success was sweet, it would prove to be only the first of many challenges that Kartik would encounter in furthering his education in STEM.
“Once in the program, I had to really work with my teachers and apply my tech skills to figure out how to access a lot of the visual content that wasn’t readily available to me,” Kartik explains. “The school system didn’t ensure textbooks were accessible for blind students, they didn’t ensure that there was specific support available in the schools for blind students, so it was definitely challenging. I had to figure out clever ways to study.”
One of the ways Kartik adapted his studies was through the sonification of graphs, a method of using frequencies and variation in sound to describe the trend on a graph in a way that can be understood audibly instead of visually.
“Some of the software that does that is expensive,” Kartik says. “I come from a very humble, mid-class family in India and there was no way I was going to ask my dad to buy that for me, so I was like, I’m going to do it myself. I basically used musical notes to figure out how a graph would sound audibly and help me to visualize it, and then open-source that so others who also can’t afford the crazy-expensive software and embossers and all this other technology that’s more common in somewhere like the United States could also use the technology.”
“For organic chemistry, I had to work with my teachers to supplement the standard conventions that enabled me to represent complex molecules on my computer without drawing them, because I couldn’t draw them.”
When it came time to consider college, Kartik set his intent on attending the Indian Institutes of Technology, one of India’s top engineering schools. Instead, Kartik found himself facing an old, familiar obstacle – his application was denied.
“The first response was ‘We’re not going to take blind people in – we don’t think you can do it’ and of course by then, I wasn’t ready to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he says. “Now it was, ‘Hey, you can’t do that, this is illegal.’ There was a back and forth for about three years and while they ended up providing the permission for entrance, they couldn’t provide reasonable accommodation that would have enabled me and other blind people to successfully take exams on an equal basis as anyone else. That’s when I started exploring international opportunities. People were telling me to give up science and do something else, you know, ‘You’re smart, you’ll be a great lawyer, a great whatever’ and I was like, I don’t care. I only want to be a great computer scientist.
People were telling me to give up science and do something else, you know, ‘You’re smart, you’ll be a great lawyer, a great whatever’ and I was like, I don’t care. I only want to be a great computer scientist.
It was at Stanford University where Kartik found himself on the path to becoming a great computer scientist, after reaching out to one of his former teachers who had moved to the U.S. and had recommended that he explore American universities where accommodations may be more readily available for students like himself. But even after leaving India, Kartik couldn’t ignore the rejection he still felt from the Indian universities and what that rejection meant for other blind students of science.
“I realized that I’m here in the states, and not everyone is going to come to the states – not everyone has to come to the states if they want to access math or science or STEM education in India,” he says.
The thought led him to found Project STEM Access in his freshman year, an online community providing resources and guidance for blind students with disabilities in India using the knowledge Kartik was gaining at Stanford. It was through this platform that Kartik was able to work with Indian non-profits and the government and education systems to identify problem areas and better support students with disabilities. Indian Institutes of Technology has since redesigned its entrance exams to be more inclusive, with more than a dozen blind students now enrolled at the IITs and other nationally recognized technical institutes.
Project STEM Access laid the foundation for a number of projects that Kartik would go on to lead for the blind community. In 2016, he co-founded mentorship sites like NextBillion.org, connecting students with disabilities with corporate professionals in the tech industry, and in 2017, he co-founded his current project, Inclusive Stem.
“There was already a lot of support in the U.S. for people with disabilities but there was still no support in India, so I wanted to do something more in the developing world, but I also wanted to leverage my skills as a computer scientist and as someone who was specializing in artificial intelligence,” he recalls. “I co-founded I-Stem in 2017 with a group of friends and it started off with advocacy, support, and mentorship, but it had technology as a core component. It was about how we make sure that we can develop tech that can empower not only students with disabilities, but also other stakeholders? How can we empower universities in India to set up a disability office and provide actionable framework using technology that can help them better support their students with disabilities? How can we bring corporates onboard and ensure they’re able to provide accommodations to employees with disabilities without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and buying a lot of different technologies? Everything is moving to the cloud now – how can we unify software and bring it all together? That is what I-Stem is trying to do right now.”
In addition to his start-up ventures, Kartik continues to change and develop capabilities and resources for people with disabilities through his career as a software engineer on Microsoft’s Cortana team. Kartik joined the company full time in 2017 after completing a series of internships during his time at Stanford.
“One of the cool things we do at Microsoft is participate in a week-long ‘hackathon’ where employees leave their work for about a week and spend time ‘hacking’ on another project in the company that they’re passionate about,” he says. “One of the projects I worked on early on in my internships was a software that leverages artificial intelligence to aid blind people in terms of navigation, identifying products, and verbal descriptions of scenes. We improved the product with better hardware and were able to demo it to executives and that team continued to develop the product further into what is now their Seeing AI platform serving over one million users.”
The monumental effort that has gone into achieving his education and fulfilling his professional dreams is not lost on Kartik. It’s what drives him to continue creating and ideating around new ways of empowering others and changing the narrative around people with disabilities.
“In some places, disability, even today, is synonymous with low expectations – people can’t do things and can only do entry-level positions,” he laments. “But they haven’t been given the resources or support to be given the kind of necessary accommodations to maybe do the kind of jobs that others like me have been fortunate to do.”
Another piece to the puzzle, he says, is getting others to talk and engage people with disabilities to solve problems together.
“Unfortunately, what happens is a lot of the time people would rather not talk to a person with disabilities out of fear that they might say something that might upset someone. Some of those concerns are valid, but I don’t assume that people should know anything about blindness. How should I expect someone who does not live my world to know about my world? The message I want to get across is, it’s okay to ask. It’s okay to put yourself in difficult and uncomfortable situations.”