The Journey of a Blind Student from India to Stanford

Small thumb untitled design  1
Kartik Sawhney
Stanford

Hi Kartik! We have been wanting to share your story for a long time, so thank you for taking out the time and sharing your journey with us!



1. Let's start with the question that you perhaps get asked the most - You were born blind and went to study Computer Science at Stanford University. Tell us how did you find the determination to fight the hurdles, that you must have experienced to get there?

It came from my parents, teachers and mentors. From a very young age, my parents encouraged me to do anything and everything that my classmates did. As an example, during art classes, my mom would stick wool on the outline of the drawing so that I could colour in it. This ensured that I was actively involved in some way, and there was no experience that I missed out on. Later, when I faced some challenges due to stereotypes that discouraged me from doing what I wanted to do, they encouraged me to take on the challenge and prove people wrong. My teachers helped me come up with creative ways in which we could work around challenges (e.g. managing graphs and diagrams). For instance, we came up with a new convention that supplements the standard IUPAC convention used to represent organic chemistry molecules, so that I could convey this information to others without drawing it. All of this inspired me to continue despite any challenges.


2. As a result of your visual impairment, we understand that your first battle was the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), which initially refused to let you study science in class XI. Tell us more about that experience?

From a young age, I enjoyed math, science and computer science, and by the 10th grade, I was confident that I wanted to study science. The Central Board of Secondary Education did not allow blind students to pursue science in 11th and 12th grades at that time and rejected my application. My closest friends and mentors advised me to switch tracks. I was disappointed and disillusioned. I had no idea what to do. Finally, I decided to challenge the CBSE. After 9 months of persuasion, over two dozen fervent appeals, an advocacy campaign, and a personal meeting with the chairman of the Board, I finally secured permission for all blind students across the country to pursue Sciences at the higher secondary level, and enrolled at the country's first blind science student in the 11th grade. Thinking about it now, it feels great that I could convince the board but at the same time, I also get sad thinking about why I had to struggle for nine months in the first place.


3. You wanted to study at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). However, the IIT entrance exam doesn’t cater to blind candidates, making it impossible for you to study Science and Engineering. How did you feel about that at the time?

My conversation with IITs started in the 10th grade. After the CBSE experience, I knew that it would not be easy to convince the institute. The first reply that I got was a straightforward denial, that I couldn't study at the IITs even if I qualified the exam. I was able to appeal this very quickly, thanks to the law. But, over the next three years, I had to write several letters explaining them the reasonable accommodations that were necessary for me to take the exam on an equal basis as others. I also had to meet several officials, and unfortunately, had to experience insensitivity and discrimination on several occasions. Despite several efforts, I failed to convince them. My life came to a standstill. I had been preparing for the competitive exams for the past three years, and here I was. I finally decided to use legal recourse, and fortunately, got them to provide some accommodations. But, by then, I was convinced that studying at the IITs would be a constant struggle. That is when I started exploring international opportunities.


4. So you went to study at Stanford University! How does the university support, blind students?

Studying at Stanford has been absolutely wonderful. The past four years have been the best in my life. My experience is probably just like any other student at Stanford - amazing professors, even more amazing peers, outstanding opportunities and a lot of fun. But, what has been even more remarkable is the support the university provides to its students with disabilities. The university has a separate office to cater to students with disabilities called the Office of Accessible Education. I do not have to type out any of my textbooks now and get them in accessible formats before the quarter begins. I can request library and lab assistants, note takers, verbal descriptionists and a lot more. But, these accommodations are not what makes Stanford great; rather, it is the attitude of people here. Everyone on the campus is very understanding and supportive. The community thinks of me as a student with varied interests who happens to have a disability, rather than a disabled student. That is what makes all the difference.


5. You then went on to intern at Uber? Tell us more about your experience there and what did you specifically work on?

I was on the driver intelligence team at Uber and helped them understand feedback from their drivers better. Using natural language processing, I extracted meaningful and actionable data from free-form driver comments, identifying broad clusters/categories and analyzing how this varied over time and across different sets of drivers and geographies. Other than the project, it was great to meet and work with amazing engineers and experience a fast-growing company.


6. In your view, how do you think technology can enable social good?

Whatever I have been able to do in life is largely because of technology. I use a screen reader that helps me work, play, code, basically do anything. It is hard for me to even imagine a life without it. Mine is of course not the only example of technology having a transformative impact on someone's life. I strongly believe that technology is a great leveller, and can help empower people. It's exciting to see several entrepreneurs and innovators using tech for social good, and I'm happy to be able to contribute to this in little ways.


7. You’re co-founded NextBillion.org, which matches people with disabilities to industry leaders for mentoring and breaking down barriers around disability. Tell us more about your experience with this program?

It all started when I came to Stanford. I realized that even though I was fortunate to have made it here, such would not be the case for everyone in India. It was still important to work with the IITs and the government to ensure that rules were changed, and at the same time, it was important to encourage students to try out STEM fields. That is when I launched project STEM Access that provides mentorship and support to blind science students in India and works with the Government and institutes to provide them reasonable accommodations. In this process, I got to personally mentor a few students and realized how powerful mentorship could be. I could also relate to my own experiences back in India. I certainly would not have been able to apply to international universities without mentors.

Given this, I collaborated with a few friends and launched NextBillion.org in April 2016. Since then, it has been an amazing journey. We have already completed two mentorship cohorts, connecting over 60 students with disabilities interested in tech with industry professionals. But, that is not where our role ends. We are personally invested in every mentee, providing weekly resources, organizing webinars, connecting them with other people with disabilities in fields they want to explore etc.

Currently, I am also spending some time working closely with blind students interested in tech in India. While students with disabilities in North America face challenges, students in India have to struggle even more, and the idea is to sensitize institutions and employers through awareness events and programs like NextBillion.org.


8. Would you like to share anything about the role that your family has played in your life?

As I shared before, my family has had a major role in my life. In the 11th grade, when none of the science textbooks were accessible to me, my mom would patiently dictate nearly 50 pages every day, so that I could access them later. when I would be discouraged after conversations with IITs, my family would encourage me to try again. When I told them that I wanted to go abroad, they were initially hesitant (I had never lived alone), but later, were extremely supportive of the idea, and provided all the help to make it happen. In short, I would not have been able to do anything without them.


9. You are currently pursuing a Masters in Artificial Intelligence at Stanford. What excites you about it?

I see enormous potential in AI. It can not only change how we travel, browse the web or interact with technology, but can truly empower people. Whether it's using computer vision to help blind people navigate their surroundings or the technology to detect Parkinson's disease or Cancer, the possibilities are endless. I would encourage everyone to check out this video to learn about the power of Artificial Intelligence and how it could impact bling people' lives.


10. Do you plan to return to India at some point?

Yes. As you can probably tell from the projects I am working on, I am keen on changing how we look at disability in India and hope to return to the country to work on this full-time at some point. 


Kartik Sawhney is currently pursuing a Masters at Stanford University, with a focus on Artificial Intelligence. Most recently, he co-founded nextbillion.org, a mentoring portal for people with disabilities. He has been honoured with several awards including the Queen's Young Leaders Award presented by Her Majesty the Queen, Google Lime Scholarship, and National Child Award for Exceptional Achievements.

Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Email a Friend