Abhishek Syal tells Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty why he developed a software for visually challenged students to explore maps and diagrams

Braille books are what a visually impaired student uses to understand words. But subjects like geography, economics, science, maths, etc. have maps and diagrams too. How do they decipher those? Ever thought of that?

Many of us have not, though the answer is simple, they can’t, so they seek help from the sighted.

Like us, a young Abhishek Syal too didn’t know this truth, didn’t think about it. Till he visited the Institute for the Blind in his home city Chandigarh in 2006. A software geek (Abhishek was pursuing electronic engineering at BITS, Pilani, then), he considered, “Why not I create a device to help them explore maps and diagrams on their own?”

This train of thought not just added a course to his life but helped deliver — “after field trials for three years ” — a much-needed software in 2010 that now enables over 200 visually challenged students to understand the drawings on their own. Abhishek has applied for patent for this self-learning aid, and also for an added apparatus. “The second one is an intelligent microcontroller-based attachment for automatic identification of the diagrams and a special simple keyboard for primary school blind students,” he explains.

For these groundbreaking inventions, Abhishek has just been accorded in New Delhi this year’s NCPEDP-MphasiS Universal Design Award. Later, talking about his inventions on email from Hyderabad — his present base, he throws light on the two reasons that led him as a student to start an organisation in Chandigarh. He named it ARISE (Act to Rise for Innovation in Special Education). “One, that the visually challenged need so much more self-learning resources, including aids, tools, softwares and devices. The other, in my conversations with NGOs, I learnt that the challenge they face after receiving a hardware/software donation is its maintenance and upgradation.”

So ASIRE began as an organisation to hook with NGOs in the field “and create, develop and disseminate self-learning technologies and resources and also to provide continued assistance to them.” The softwares he has developed are distributed free to NGOs which take part in his research process. They try them out with blind students, mainly in Chandigarh and Hyderabad.

He earns no money from it. “To keep food on the table and not to financially depend on parents, I decided to take up a job. I joined BHEL Corporate Research & Development Division (in Hyderabad) because I thought that would be a great fit for me,” he says. So, he works “about 50 hours at BHEL per week and the rest at ARISE. The Sunday evenings usually go into conference calls with various volunteers.” He is also pursuing a distance learning course on Energy Innovation and Emerging Technologies from Stanford University.

So how do his softwares work? “All our softwares, (he calls them special education module) are bilingual, in a local language plus English. When we conducted our field research surveys and also through observations of our volunteers, in both North and South India, we found that audio was one of the best interactive mediums besides tactile. Also, our research surveys indicated a dire need for English language fluency, which is the business language.” The software is in Hindi, Punjabi and Telugu. “Marathi, Bengali and Tamil are in initial phases.”

Says Abhishek, “I know reaching out to only 200 plus students is not a great figure but this is good enough progress in two years and considering the effort we put in to customise the learning resources for each NGO and for each class. Typically, our resources have over 80 per cent engagement after they have been delivered. Also, the resources in history, civics, economics and geography had 100 per cent engagement amongst students.”

He is keen to spread the benefit to more students through tie-ups with NGOs, “particularly in South India”, and also corporate houses. “We have consulting partnership with Tattvam Consulting LLP, also with web-based start-ups like Internshala.com and IgnitedV. But it would be great if corporates and SMEs can create value beyond their primary customers and look at differently-abled as prospective employees and stakeholders.” Here, he points at an important possibility. “A visually challenged could be better at a BPO job simply because his sense of hearing is sharper compared to yours and mine.”