Currently a senior at Stanford University, Kartik Sawhney is an all-rounder who has been recognized with several national and international awards for excellence in academics, music, debating and social advocacy. But, what sets him apart from other scholars is his inspirational never-say-die spirit.
Until very recently, Science, technology, engineering and Mathematics were considered to be almost impossible for blind students in India. Instead of finding solace in traditional careers, however, Kartik was determined to follow his passion and assimilated himself into the streams of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in grades 11 and 12, becoming the first blind student in the Central Board of Secondary Education (the biggest national board in India) to opt for this track. This, however, did not come easily. Until 2010, CBSE did not permit blind students to pursue these subjects at the Sr. Secondary level. In spite of skepticism and indifferent attitude of the authorities, Kartik convinced the authorities about the abilities of the visually challenged with the assistance from his school and NGOs, and secured the permission for all blind students across the country to opt for these subjects, thereby not only paving the path for himself, but the community as a whole. His efforts have now resulted in several others successfully pursuing sciences, and even more excited about the prospect of studying these subjects in the future.
Being full of technical notations and visual inputs, Science subjects were not easy to manage. As a result, Kartik developed several conventions and strategies to study these subjects successfully. Armed with a sound programming knowledge, he developed a suite of applications that further accessibility of STEM content. One of the software’, for instance, converts a graph into its tonal representation, providing the blind student an intuition of the monotonicity of the curve. Yet another resource is a convention to represent organic chemistry molecules on a computer without drawing them. To ensure that his juniors do not have to face the same challenges that he faced as a student, he launched project STEMAccess that provides these resources, mentoring sessions, hands-on sessions in different parts of India and online tutorials. He is currently working on an application that seeks to address the inaccessibility of math and science content in developing countries by relying on crowdsourcing to edit otherwise inaccessible technical content.
Realising that access to material in accessible formats was a great challenge in India, Kartik engaged himself into a thorough research about the opportunities available abroad and made concrete suggestions to mitigate the challenges faced by blind students. His research paper titled `End the Book Famine with Better technology, Attitudes and Copyright Law` was published by the UNICEF in its flagship publication `State of the World’s Children Report` 2013. He is also actively involved as a member of the Youth Council of UNICEF’s Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities. In this capacity, he represented India at the 7th session of the Conference of State Parties to the UNCRPD, and was selected as one of the five youth leaders across the world to address the UN. In recognition of his technical solutions to improve the lives of children, he was also named a “digital champion” by UNICEF, and was featured in the Limca Book of Records (Indian equivalent of Guinness Book of World Records).
While Kartik could not get the reasonable accommodations he required to take the IIT Joint Entrance Examination for admission to top tech schools in India, he worked hard to ensure that such was not the case for his friends. He not only reached out to the officials at the institute and the Ministry, but did not shy away from pursuing legal recourse either. His efforts lead to the institute finally willing to provide the necessary reasonable accommodations, resulting in two students successfully qualifying the exam in 2014 and 2016. He also continues to advocate on other challenges faced by the disabled locally as well, and is an active member of the Young Voices network of the Leonard Cheshire Disability. As a part of the group, he was very active in several important campaigns, including working with the CBSE to allow the use of computers in national public exams, advocating for more accessible transportation and a better experience at amusement parks.
Kartik is indeed an agent of change. He has demonstrated that the challenge lies in converting a disadvantage into a success story. His life is indeed a classic example of triumph of will over fate. In light of his achievements and work, he recently won the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders award 2016, which was presented to him by Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace. This award has inspired him to continue these initiatives and scale them further to reach even more students with disabilities.