Kartik Sawhney’s long struggle to ensure access to higher education for the blind is bearing fruit

The city, on Saturday, had a visitor whose story was of relentless pursuit of one’s dreams and refusal to take no for an answer.

Kartik Sawhney, a 18-year-old student with visual impairment, who recently cleared the CBSE class XII exams with 96 per cent, had put in over four years of effort to prepare for the IIT-JEE, only to be denied permission to write the test as the IIT council and the CBSE board did not have provisions for candidates with visual impairment.

The student, however, managed to ace the entrance tests of reputed foreign universities, including Stanford University, and gained a fully-funded admission into its prestigious computer engineering course. In a freewheeling chat with students of Little Flower Convent for the Blind, he told them never to shun science just because ‘people thought it was out of their reach.’

“There are hundreds of software applications that are changing lives of visually challenged people everywhere. It is time education boards adopted them, and gave us a chance,” he said,

Kartik spent over two years trying to convince the IIT council and CBSE to consider his application. His demands were very simple — permission to write the test and a little assistance such as tactile diagrams, assistive technology to help with rough work and a writer who was familiar with mathematical terms.

“They refused everything, and stipulated that the scribe would not be allowed to do my rough work. This implied I would have to do all the rough work mentally, which is not possible considering JEE involves a lot of calculation. Also, they said the scribe would be two years younger than me and from the humanities stream to make sure I did not seek his help,” said the student.

Finally, he had to give up his hopes of getting into the elite institutions. “I had nurtured the IIT dream for many years. All my mock tests show I would have managed to come within the first ten ranks across the country.”

His attempts to convince the IIT board were not the first time he had to fight to continue his education. CBSE had been very reluctant to let him opt for the science stream in class XI, he recalled.

“The CBSE director himself intervened because Kartik had so many proficiency prizes and he did not want to consider any other stream but science,” said Indu, his mother. She recalled the rigorous preparation Kartik put into clearing his boards and JEE. “There were no audio books and all we had was a software application that was not good at pronouncing scientific terms. Most nights, I would read out reference books and text books, and he would type his notes,” she said. “Making sense of diagrams and chemistry equations was difficult because there were no audio files. But I can visualise concepts very well,” said the student, who was sent the scanned question paper and allowed to use a system with assistive software for his class XII exam.

Kartik, with the help of his mother, has also created folders of typed out notes and audio files that he is willing to provide any student with visual impairment. “He was the only visually impaired student this year but four such students will write the exam next year. This shows students are willing to pursue their interest in the sciences. Now, it is up to schools and education boards,” Indu said.

His experience with Stanford shows that it is possible to allow students to pursue their passion. “They had different mechanisms to test me. They also had CCTV cameras to record every session as a safeguard against unfair practices,” he said.

And it seems that institutions in the country too are learning. “IIT- Delhi has asked me to help them make changes to the system. It is just that not every blind student, who wants to study science, can afford or would want to go abroad. I never wanted to. The IITs are considered the best, they should at least not disappoint us.”

The event was organised by Rotary Club of Madras Coromandel and Rotoract Club of Drishti.

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