Niwant TechVision – A team of blind software engineers in Pune
What’s common to Stevie Wonder, Surdas, Helen Keller and Siddhant Chothe, Nitin Dhaware, Sandhya Murkute, Sanghapal Bhowate and Vikas Waghmare? All of them are achievers whose visual impairment did not spell an end to their world. The latter five people form the Team TechVision, ‘a software writing firm’ at the Niwant Andh Mukta Vikasalaya in Pune.
Niwant is doing work in helping not just the visually impaired but society too in understanding their need for empathy and dignity. It is an organization that helps visually challenged students in pursuing higher education after the age of 18. Many of them are branded by their family and society as non-productive and useless. But in last fourteen years ‘Niwant’ has tried to change the picture by putting them back in the social fold. Many are now employed, have families and lead a mainstream life through Niwant efforts. More, they are now contributing back, through the alumni club, ‘So Can Eye’.
TechVision has just completed a paid project from the Silicon Valley, at BoardWalk Tech, a U.S. based company (whose founder, Sarang Kulkarni, recently moved to Pune) and they are raring for more. Sourabh Nolkha, Chief Strategic & Development Officer of Niwant Andh Mukta Vikasalaya waxes eloquent about how it all started.
“14 years back Niwant Andh Mukta Vikasalaya was established to help the visually challenged youth of India get a chance at holistic development in this fast growing new age world. When they did not have any education material, Niwant offered them the opportunity to gain knowledge initially through hand written Braille books and cassette recording for audio. This increased their zeal to study further which made Niwant look further into options of providing more knowledge at a faster rate. Niwant received a Braille Embosser, which opened a new eye for the Visually Challenged as they were able to compete with the sighted world.
The journey of making Visually Challenged students technologically savvy started with Niwant providing them with MP3 players, on which they could record the lessons. With this, Niwant understood the importance of the technology and computers. The students were also fascinated with the potentials it hold for them and the enhancement it could do to their learning process. But some of the students ventured even a step further and opted for Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Application (PGDCA). Then some more followed their footsteps and started early with Bachelor’s in Computer Applications.
Niwant had students capable of making a career in IT but there was a lack of trust by the main-stream IT industry. That is when Niwant, with the help of some friends and volunteers, decided to provide the prospective Techies, a launch-pad and started Tech Vision. We had our first break with BoardwalkTech Inc.”
So how do they learn software programming?
Sourabh says the team comprise of five visually impaired, all of whom have studied computers at their Bachelor degree level or have done special certification program in computer science from renowned Pune University. The curriculum consisted of computer basics, Operating Systems (Linux, Windows), MS Office, Tally and many program languages C, C++, Java, VB, ASP, SQL, HTML, Dot (.) Net.
“In addition to their regular classes at the college, we provided them with additional coaching classes at Niwant with the help of some volunteers and also sent them to specialized computer coaching institutions.”
Sourabh says initially, there was a resistance to the whole idea of visually challenged learning computers. Some of their students had to fight hard to get admission into the computer courses. But finally they could convince the colleges to accept them at par with other sighted students and the students proved their mettle quite frequently, raising their stock value and dissolving prejudices. For the subsequent batches, the going has been smoother.
But it has not been enough just to get the admissions. The course curriculum is not very accommodative of the visually challenged and requires drawings / diagrams, thus limiting the scores of the visually challenged. There was also trouble regarding finding suitable scribes. But in due time, the mindset has undergone a sea change resulting in increased co-operation. The teachers have now started accepting the assignments in electronic form and norms for scribes have also been re-defined.
So Niwant was able to achieve the ultimate? No, says Sourabh, there were yet more challenges waiting for them.
“The licensed version of the audio-aid software like Job Access With Speech (JAWS) was out of reach for most of the visually challenged due to its cost. In addition to this, some of the applications are not supported in totality or partially by the audio-aid software. This was not conducive for their studies. After they had completed their studies, the problem was to find suitable job opportunities which were hard to come by. That is when Tech Vision came as their saviour.”
So what are the software tools they use (specifically for the blind)? Sourabh provides a list.
- Job Access with Speech (JAWS) – audio-aid software for windows operating system
- Talks and Mobile Speak – audio-aid software for mobile
- Abbey – scanning software for better OCR scanning
- Win Braille – converts normal English script into Braille script
- JAWS Sangeetha – converts normal English script into audio
- Shri Patrika from Modular Infotech – converts regional languages into Braille script
The work have they done in one year is impressive too. Other than Boardwalk where they worked on Java Servlets for the BCP Demo Version and Boardwalk Collaboration Platform demonstration version where they still work on Visual Basic for Application for the API development project, they have done an HSBC Sample Accessibility Testing where they conducted a sample web accessibility test case on HSBC Private Bank home page.
The profile of the current staff of Tech Vision is also quite comparable to industry standards. While Siddhant Chothe has completed MCM and has 2 years of work- experience, Nitin Dhaware has completed PGDCA and has 2 years of work exposure. The others, Sandhya Murkute, Vikas Waghmare, and Sanghapal Bhowate are all in their 3rd year B.C.A and have 1 year of part-time work-experience. They also have a visually challenged volunteer Shrirang Shahastrabuddhi, from Infosys Technologies.
The currently capabilities include competence in Visual basic, Java, Oracle, C++, PHP, MySQL, Web Design, Accessibility testing of User Interface, Web Accessibility testing and solutions. (USA 508, WCAG2 guide lines). Niwant is looking for clientele, and any company interested in product development based on VBA, Java, MySQL, PHP etc. and getting their website tested for accessibility under Section 508 of US Rehabilitation Act, 1998 and WCAG2 guidelines, GIGW (Guidelines for Indian Government Websites, 2011) are welcome to tap their talent.
Check them out at http://www.niwantvision.com/