Kartik Sawhney

Photograph of Kartik Sawhney "Kartik Sawhney is a young man who is big news in India. He has been totally blind since birth and is the first student who is blind to have completed schooling in a science stream. Kartik has just secured admission to Stanford University in the USA for computer science – with a full scholarship. Since his first year in school he has used a computer in the classroom and at home. He is technically very competent, academically gifted (receiving many awards for his achievements), and uses all assistive technology available for people who are blind. He is also a strong advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities"

"I have been his teacher for more than 12 years now. Initially I used DAISY story books to peak his interest in computers and technology. At present he uses electronic text and a screen reader for his reading and writing needs." [Introduction prepared by Prashant Verma, Consultant – Technical Support and Software Testing with the DAISY Consortium]

Computers & Screen Readers Changed My Life Forever

I was born in New Delhi, India – shortly after I was diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity which left me totally blind. My father owns a store in Lajpat Nagar, my mother is a homemaker and I have a twin sister and an older brother. From quite an early age I was provided with training and 'grooming' at National Association for the Blind, Delhi; NAB played a pivotal role in boosting my self-confidence. I went to Delhi Public School, East of Kailash – a mainstream school – and soon became aware of the tremendous effort that my mother had to put in to transcribing my reading material into braille. Determined to change this I started learning how to use a computer with access technology – with the guidance received from Mr. Prashant Ranjan Verma. Before long I was using a computer for all of my academic work, including taking examinations, as early as class II [grade 2].

Kartik Sawhney and his mother (source: India Times) In class X, I had to select an educational track that I would pursue in the future. I was passionate about the sciences, and was confident about my choice. It took a lot of convincing and I had to seek permission from the Central Board of Secondary Education to begin with Science & Computers. In my chosen field the visual inputs and other technical notations demanded ingenuity. I used several self-made conventions to represent different notations, while also employing several other strategies and software programs to deal with graphs and diagrams. Through this 'journey' the school I attended was extremely supportive. My hard work finally paid off when I secured an aggregate of 96% in the national public examinations plus acceptance and a 100% scholarship at Stanford University in the United States. My preference would have been to pursue his studies in his own country, but the guidelines of IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination) last year have made it impossible for blind students to appear in the JEE. (They expected me to multiply 11,652 with 651 mentally. And according to the new policy, I could have a scribe and reader only from humanities or commerce streams. They said they would not allow a scribe with a science background, saying that he would help me cheat.)

My computer loaded with a screen reader is what revolutionized my life forever, providing me the courage to look ahead. Nothing would have been possible had I not learnt of TTS. Moreover, DAISY books have made reading so comfortable and enjoyable – an absolute delight!"

End the 'book famine' with better technology, attitudes and copyright law

Source: UNICEF State of the World's Children 2013 – Children with Disabilities

PERSPECTIVE, By Kartik Sawhney

"Visually impaired people face what at least one writer has called a 'book famine'. This is not news to us: The visually challenged and print-impaired have been struggling for accessibility for a long time. 'Accessibility' is an all-encompassing term that includes access to the physical environment, transportation, information and communication technology, education and other facilities. In my view, it is crucial that accessible material be readily available. The urgency is even greater when we consider the situation in developing nations."

"When I conducted an informal survey of nearly 60 visually challenged students in primary and secondary grades in mainstream schools in India, I found that less than 20 per cent of them had access to material in their preferred format, and less than 35 per cent to material in any format. Being visually challenged, I've had several experiences where lack of accessibility has impeded me from availing myself of the same opportunities as others. The effort needed to make reading material accessible is monumental. Thanks to advances in optical character recognition (OCR) … there has been some improvement. However, technical content remains inaccessible … The plight of rural students is even worse …."

"This is not just a matter for governments: Anyone can make a positive difference. I recall a historic achievement made in 2011 by a group of visually challenged youth in Bangalore, India. Preparing for the entrance exams to prestigious business schools in the country, they contacted the well-known educational publisher Pearson Education and requested that they publish their material in an accessible format. Pearson agreed and has since then made much of their material available for the visually challenged. However, not all publishers are as sensitive and understanding. Lack of awareness and insensitivity are two of the biggest challenges. Unless – until – there is a paradigm shift in attitudes towards people who are visually challenged, it will be difficult to overcome the challenges that plague the print-impaired community today…"

Kartik closes his essay with: "Copyright law must be amended. I hope that countries will continue to work on the legal framework, and that the United Nations will take action towards a referendum on this issue. With concerted effort, I believe we will secure this inalienable right for all people with disabilities, everywhere: the right to access all material!"

Kartik Sawhney speaking at Shri Ram School (Source: from the YouTube video) In the YouTube video of Kartik speaking to an audience of students at Shri Ram School, Aravali, he talks about the challenges he has faced, his decisions and some of his accomplishments. In class 10, students need to decide which stream they will take in class 11 and 12. Kartik wanted to study science; however the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) did not allow blind students to study science. His efforts to follow his chosen path in education and the support of others resulted in the CBSE issuing a circular for all students allowing them to pursue science in classes 11 and 12. In the final minute of Kartik's presentation, at a request from the large audience, he sings (Among his many achievements, Kartik is a trained Hindustani classical vocalist).

This "Topper's" Future

(A "topper" is a student whose grades are at the top, above others.) In the NDTV video interview: Visual impairment kept him from appearing for IIT, Stanford welcomes him, Kartik explains that in the future he wants to be a software developer focusing on two tracks of computer science: artificial intelligence and accessibility. In the rediff.com article Blind Indian rejected by IITs will now study at Stanford Kartik states "I think success comes to those who believe in their strengths" and this gifted young man has many strengths as illustrated in his CV (also on the rediff site).

End Note: Achievements

At school Kartik was an exceptional student, winning laurels for the school in diverse events ranging from academic Olympiads to model UN conferences, music competitions to programming contests. Academically, Kartik emerged as the Class "topper" since class V. He was selected for the National Talent Search and the Junior Science Talent Search scholarships – two of the most prestigious scholarship programs in India. In recognition of his achievements, he was honoured with the National Child Award for Exceptional achievements which is the highest honour for children in India.

Sources & Additional Reading/Videos

Photo Credits