How this visually impaired woman empowers blind children to pursue STEM education

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Vidhya Y (28) was the first child born blind in Thirumagondanahalli village in Anekal taluk on the outskirts of Bangalore.

As she grew up, friends, relatives and other villagers expressed their concerns about Vidhya’s future, and the questions always centered on what she would do in the future and if someone would marry her.

However, Vidhya ignored the noise around her and discovered a love and passion for math and science.

At the age of six, Vidhya remembers separating the segments of an orange and learning to count. She also collected mustard seeds and rice and used them to learn numbers and counting.

However, when the formal education system and its infrastructure repeatedly failed him, especially when it came to higher education in math and science, Vidhya made it his mission to make education inclusive for all. .

Many years later, in 2017, she launched Vision Empower, a non-profit organization incubated at IIIT Bangalore Innovation Centre, which enables visually impaired children to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Make it happen

With just a primary school with Kannada as the language of instruction in her village, continuing her education was difficult for most children.

Opportunities were even more limited for Vidhya and, coupled with the stigma and ignorance surrounding education for people with disabilities, she often found herself in difficult situations.

One day, while Vidhya’s neighbor was traveling in the city, he saw and followed a vehicle belonging to an organization for people with different types of disabilities.

“He followed him for 15 km and reached a charity center where visually impaired women received vocational training to earn a living. There was a girl, who had studied up to the tenth standard and knew Braille,” says Vidhya. His history.

Vidhya enrolled in the same center and after two years transferred to a formal second standard school for the blind where she woke up at 4:30 a.m., completed her cleaning duties and began studying for the day.

“I was recognized for being the most disciplined student in the class. It was a turning point for me because until then I didn’t know you could be rewarded for doing something,” she says.

Driven by recognition, she topped all her grades and was often tasked with teaching math and science to her classmates.

“However, I was advised not to continue with maths because there were alternative options like humanities and economics offered by the main councils,” she recalls.

Vidhya was determined to study and transfer to a regular school after the seventh standard. But she was rejected by most of the schools she applied to.

“Some people told me to go to a special school while others worried about how I would be able to use the toilet. I ended up crying in many interviews because I did not know how to manage the situation,” she recalls. .

Her family later moved to Attidele and she enrolled in Attibele Public School, managed to get private tutoring and made headlines when she topped the tenth boards with 95% in mathematics and science.

This realization changed people’s perception and expectations of him and eventually they started to encourage him to pursue higher education.

Vidhya says passing the exams was particularly difficult because she hired a junior student as a scribe who was not qualified enough to understand the basics of the subject.

“Sometimes when I said columns, they wrote in rows and I couldn’t see what they were writing,” she said, adding that the 20 minutes of extra time given to students with disabilities was not enough.

After sending seven letters to the Ministry of Education, Vidhya was able to extend the deadline to one hour for students across India.

Vidhya Y, co-founder, Vision Empower

be the change

After completing her undergraduate studies in computer science at Christ (Deemed to be University), she became the first blind student in the history of IIIT, Bangalore and was offered a one-year internship, after have joined the master’s program in digital society.

“I topped my class and got a gold medal, but the irony is that I didn’t get any job offers when recruiting on campus. Everyone got a job except me,” she said. Although she made it this far, most employers worried about how she would get to work or use computers.

“Not everything I said was enough to convince them that I would be able to do as well as my other classmates. It was unfair because I had worked so hard all my life. The experience left me depressed,” she adds.

After a brief research internship at Microsoft, Vidhya decided it was time to take matters into her own hands and enable visually impaired people to pursue STEM education.

At IIIT Bangalore, she met her co-founder Supriya Dey and the two joined to imagine and build Vision Empower with the help of the institute’s Professor Amit.

She says, “I knew if I could do it, anyone could, if they had the right resources.”

At first, Vidhya did not want to rely on her experience alone and visited schools to interact with students and teachers to understand what they needed.

Vision Empower has started making the manuals accessible in Braille for text and diagrams with some of the diagrams also in 3D models.

During its five years of operation, the organization has worked with over 23 schools in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Tripura, Delhi and Gujarat.

It trains teachers – most of whom are blind or partially sighted – and gives them the skills to teach computational thinking to children.

The coronavirus pandemic presented a different challenge; visually impaired teachers were helpless when everyone seamlessly transitioned to online learning.

To help them, Vision Empower has launched a project to impart digital literacy and make the most of online platforms like YouTube and Zoom.

“I created 23 audio tutorials in Kannada and some in English which are now translated into different languages. Teachers were able to learn basic usage of phones and apps like Google Meet and other platforms designed for the visually impaired” , she adds.

He has also developed an accessible learning management platform Subodha where students can access all learning materials.

Speaking of entrepreneurship, says Vidhya, the task ahead of us is to look at a sustainable revenue model, as financing is a challenge. It has so far operated through corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding from various companies.

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