There are about 22 million disabled people in India, and it is still considered a taboo to be disabled. I understand a sense of remorse or pity towards them; it’s natural. However, our empathy has unknowingly created a stigma around disability. What probably started out as a concern has become a dictate, moulding the lives of disabled people into shapes they do not want to fit in. What bigger irony than one of the sources of this bigot being our Indian Education System. Out of everything, we chose to go behind the will and freedom of these people to choose a career for themselves. Did you know that visually impaired people in India are discouraged from choosing science as their career? The fact was well blanketed by those at the helm until an ambitious boy, Kartik Sawhney decided to pull it, and uncover his prejudice.
While he did get initial success, he later had to succumb to the unjust system. However, wait. He is not the one to lose. After being rejected by the IIT on the grounds of his disability, he went on to apply and successfully study at Stanford, the college that produces the likes of the Steve Jobs.
Kartik Sawhney hails from a humble background with his father owning a local automobile accessory store in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, and mother being a homemaker. Kartik, visually impaired since birth, was academically inclined since childhood, and Science, in particular, was his passionate subject. It surprised him when the CBSE board did not allow him to opt for Science as an elective when it came time to choose. He was pushed more towards arts, humanities, music, and literature. It baffled Kartik who clearly knew where his heart lay. CBSE board felt that the disability of Kartik would make it difficult for him to comprehend the visual aspect of the science curriculum such as graphs, diagrams, models, and physical lab experiments, There was no provision or special arrangements for visually impaired/disabled students. It took about two dozen letters from Kartik to convince the board to let him pursue science. Finally, his pleas were accepted, and he was admitted into the Delhi Public School, R K Puram for further studies. In fact, he is the first visually impaired CBSE student to pursue science in India! The school, however, was quite supportive of Kartik’s ambition and bred his growing interest in Science.
“For practicals, the teacher explained the apparatus and in the test, I got multiple-choice questions based on the practical curriculum,” Kartik says.
In his final examinations, Kartik scored a total of 479 out of 500, with a 99 out of 100 in computer science, and 95 out of 100 in Math. This was one of his earliest achievements that sadly commenced a tough struggle. Kartik had plans to complete his graduation in Computer Science in India, from one of the prestigious IITs. However, to his surprise, the entrance exam for IIT did not have any special provision for the blind. It meant the gates of IIT were never opened for any blind student till date!
Kartik yet again decided to fight. He met several officers, authorities, and legal representatives in this regard but was always welcomed with an insensitive attitude. His pleas for equal treatment for the disabled fell on deaf ears. The struggle was quite enduring, testing his patience at times. It was not in vain; thanks to the judiciary, he was able to convince the board to accommodate the disabled for the entrances. However, by that time, realization had dawned upon him that even if he managed to secure an IIT seat, life would continue to be a struggle for him here. He’d never be able to truly dive into his education because the system would always hold him back. He started to think of alternatives, which honestly was just one, staring into his face. If he couldn’t study in India, he had to study abroad.
He prepared for the entrance exams again which had provisions for the blind, and was called upon by one of the leading world universities, Stanford to be their pupil. His joy knew no bounds. He went to Stanford and was amazed by the warmth of the people, and empathy ingrained in the university culture. In fact, they had a separate office to cater to disabled students, called the Office of Accessible Education. During his course, he was not treated as a disabled person. He was looked upon as an individual with varied interests who just happened to have a disability. This shift in attitude made him confident in his abilities. It was here that he experienced what being educated truly meant, even beyond the classroom walls. He excelled in his academics and was hired by Uber as an intern to work on the driver’s intelligence team using natural language processing. It was at Uber that Kartik zeroed upon his goal in life- to work in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He has been felicitated many times, most notably by Queen Elizabeth II who awarded him the Young Leaders award. He is also a Google Lime Scholar.
He pursued Masters in AI from Stanford, and alongside co-founded, NextBillion.org, a non-profit organization aimed to connect disabled people interested in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) with industry leaders for real-time learning. NextBillion stems from his gratitude for being blessed with the right opportunities, the right people, and the right education at the right time. He knows that he turned out to be lucky and that millions of aspirations are dying a slow death in India because of people’s judgements and the system’s lack of empathy. Currently, Kartik is spending time with the blind students in India, and mentoring them in their careers. What started out as a personal struggle has shaped into a movement that hopefully will ease the future of the disabled.
Kartik’s story is inspiring in more ways than one. It highlights the magic of endurance, hard work, and determination; but poses a critical question to our education system- When will it educate itself?
It’s funny how the nation loses on such amazing talents only because the system focuses on what they cannot do and pulls them down; while the world is more interested in what they can do and help him grow!