By Ramakrishna Raju
(Editor’s note: This article is written by Vision-AID founder Ramakrishna Raju. Vision-Aid is a non-profit organization serving the visually disadvantaged in India.)
BOSTON–In an innovative addition to its programs, Vision-Aid, a non-profit serving the visually disadvantaged, in collaboration with IIT Madras (IITM), is offering an MIT computer science course in Python programming to visually impaired students, helping to prepare them for a hackathon for the visually challenged to be held at IITM Shastra Summit 2017 in Chennai, India.
Shastra Summit 2017
The Accessibility Summit, Shastra 2017, is the premier technical festival of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM), and is a platform for students across the world to interact with multiple stakeholders in the field of Accessibility and Assistive Technology. Apart from lectures, workshops and panel discussion by pioneers in the field, the Summit will host India’s first ever Hackathon for the Visually Impaired, a case study competition and a social enterprise competition.
The Shastra summit is a pioneering effort by IITM, energetically led by student leaders including Udith Krishna, Organizing Head of the Shastra 2017 Accessibility Summit, Advaith Sridhar, Coordinator and others, who have been working tirelessly to create this important event.
Vision-Aid is adapting a programming course taught by MIT to its undergraduate students (and also offered over the edX platform); to teach blind and low vision students programming skills in the Python programming language. Classes are offered free of cost, and virtually, with high quality one-on-one mentoring to help these students master a complex subject, and gain valuable new skills. Students are paired with highly qualified volunteer instructors based in the US, and student volunteers from IITM, who mentor the students, as teaching assistants. What makes this course both innovative and challenging to teach is that most of the students are blind, and cannot see the screen or apply normal visual learning methods, to learn programming.
They use a screen reader (called NVDA), which converts visual inputs from the screen, into audio cues that students use to do programming. In the US, Vision-Aid collaborated with MIT faculty to obtain the course materials, and with edX, a highly sophisticated and accessible learning platform, to get students enrolled for the course offered virtually, helping these students work towards credentials from one of the world’s top institutions.
Vision-Aid received a large number of applications from all over India. Nine (9) qualified students from 4 different locations in India were selected and started work in September. Locations included Bangalore, Chennai, Aligarh, and Vizag. The participating students’ disability range from total blindness to low vision conditions of varying degrees.
Students in the pilot program include the following:
Abdul Azim is a blind student who hails from Aligarh, India. He completed graduate studies in History from AMU and also holds a B.Ed. degree in education. He is currently employed at the United Bank of India as a probationary officer.
Bhargav is a blind student from Gujarat, currently based in Bangalore. Before coming to this course Bhargav had already studied other languages like PHP MYSQL, ASP.NET, VISUALL BASIC, and is one of the advanced students in the class, already enrolled in advanced lessons of the course in edX, working towards full MIT certification.
Mohith is a blind student currently working as Work Place Solutions and Accessibility tester at Enable India Bangalore and is responsible for making the people with vision impairment efficient at their work place.
Pushpalatha is an instructor at Vision-Aid in Vizag, and is learning programming so she can in turn become a teacher for this course, in the future.
Ramadevi is a visually impaired instructor at Vision-Aid in Vizag, and is learning programming so she can in turn become a teacher for this course, in the future.
Ravi Teja is a 4th year student in Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras. Despite having visual impairment, Ravi is passionate about learning programming & learning new things and modern inventions.
Subburaj a visually impaired student from Bangalore, has already done a B.com degree and now working as a Computer trainer at Enable India.
Shailesh is a visually impaired student from Mangalore, and currently working as s a computer trainer for the visually impaired at Enable India, Bangalore.
Siva Priya is a visually impaired CA final year student currently working as a content developer at Enable India, Bangalore.
The 6 volunteer teachers, all experts in programming are adapting this course and helping the students in mastering the concepts from this challenging MIT course, by providing one-on-one mentoring.
Giri Lingamarla is an IIT M graduate living in Boston area and is a global technology executive in the IT industry. Giri is the chief coordinator of the Python programming class being run by Vision-Aid.
Sonal Patel is an experienced teacher and a learner at heart, with over 15 years of experience working with distance education. Sonal has a passion to help reduce inequality through the spread of high quality education using innovative technologies.
Sri Lingamarla is an IT manager, and an entrepreneur with a passion for bringing innovative technologies to the community and enjoys volunteering for education.
Sudhir Varma is a firmware engineer by profession, and has been a member of the Vision-Aid Board for over 10 years.
Sulochana Devadas is a software engineer and has worked in the financial software industry for many years. She has a passion for teaching and is a lifelong learner.
Swaroop Vattam is a technical staff member at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory where he conducts research in artificial intelligence. He received his PhD in Computer Science from Georgia Tech in 2012.
The Student Leaders from IITM
The Vision-Aid team is closely working with student volunteer leaders at IITM. Some of them are serving as teaching assistants and mentors to provide the best possible teaching experience for the students.
Aravinth Muthu is a computer science sophomore, in love with math, travel and people.
Karthik Nishanth is a 4th year mechanical undergrad, passionate about open source software, find happiness in empowering people through technology.
Raghavan S is doing B.Tech 2nd year in computer science, very interested in programming and also loves to help others and especially loves teaching.
Rishba Jain, 1st year student in Mechanical Engineering, is passionate about spreading knowledge to the darkest corners of India and breaking stereotypes!
Srihari Sundar is a final year student in Materials Engineering and aspiring materials scientist. He wants to help people attain basic computer literacy.
Hackathon in January 2017
The training in the pilot program will enable the students to participate in a hackathon at Shastra Summit, for the disabled to be held in IITM in their campus in Chennai on Jan 2nd, 2017 – the first of its kind in India. The long term goal is to help these students’ master new skills and make careers in fields with greater growth prospects.
Training blind school children
As an extension of this project, Vision-Aid and IITM are also working with the Devnar school for the blind in Hyderabad, India to train 6 of its younger school students, to prepare for the hackathon. This is the first time these school children are being taught introductory concepts in Python programming on India. Depending on the success of this pilot, Vision-Aid plans to expand similar courses to other blind school children in 2017 on a larger scale.
The Vision-Aid leadership team includes Mr. Syed Ali Rizvi (President), Mr. Puran Dang (Chair), and Mr. Ramakrishna (Ram) Raju (Founder), Revathy Ramakrishna (Co-Founder, VP), M.S.Raju (President VA India) and Sudhir Varma (Treasurer) supported by the Vision-Aid Board and Advisory Board which comprises of 15 members, mostly based in the Boston area.
It has been a very exciting and gratifying effort for all involved. The students have been making extraordinary progress. The demand for additional courses has been strong and there is already a wait list of qualified students waiting to start courses. Vision-Aid is recruiting experienced volunteers and expanding the program to reach more students in 2017. Once students complete the course at Vision-Aid, they are then encouraged to sign up for advanced classes for the same course over edX so that they can secure additional certifications from leading institutions such as MIT over this online platform. To see videos of blind students learning how to program, visit Vision-Aid’s web site: www.visionaid.org