Forget luxurious holidays and spending time with friends, because developing new Braille technologies for blind children was on this summer’s agenda for eight Carnegie Mellon University students. We speak to Doha-based intern Aveed Sheikh about the project.
Gubbi Muktha co-founded the Mathru Educational Trust in Bangalore, India after she lost almost half her foot in a road accident. Gubbi spent three years not being able to move before she found the confidence to begin walking again, she states in her inspirational welcome message to the Mathru School for the Blind.
In 2001, in a cottage in her backyard with one blind child and one blind teacher, the first school session was called. Now, the new building houses over 70 students and seven blind teachers. They’ve even set up the Nandini project for the differently-abled after one student of the same name with low vision went blind, deaf and mute from a serious bout of the chicken pox.
Many of these children come from poor areas of Bangalore and sometimes further afield. So, in order to make their lives easier, back in 2006, Carnegie Mellon University’s TechBridgeWorld – which created the iSTEP internship – partnered with Mathru to develop what is now known as the Braille Writing Tutor.
Course organiser Professor Bernardine Dias explains, “Based on their feedback, CMU students created a device that provides children in underserved communities around the world an affordable and accessible means to learn how to write Braille using the locally available slate and stylus method.” This useful device, which is hooked up to a computer, gives audio feedback, guides writing, corrects mistakes and motivates students via educational games.
Since developing the first BWT, the two institutions have kept a close relationship and Mathru has given feedback on the need for a more portable device. As a result, CMU has developed the Standalone Braille Writing Tutor, which is one of the reasons the students went back this year. “We also received requests from Mathru for ways technology can help students with other disabilities,” Professor Dias says.
For ten weeks, eight students from CMU campuses in Doha and Pittsburg headed to Bangalore on a paid internship to assess needs, observe, research and test the new device. Business administration student Aveed Sheikh from the Doha campus said this time changed his life. “The iSTEP internship has given me a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with people that are different to me in many ways,” he tells us. “It was inspiring to work with those with physical or mental disabilities and see what they are able to do and achieve in their everyday lives.
“It motivates me to push my own limits and strive hard to achieve the best,” he says. Overall, says Aveed, he learned three major life lessons. “Creativity – to think out of the box no matter how big or small the idea may first seem to be! Patience – to expect the unexpected and to deal with it whole-heartedly. Determination – to finish the job you were assigned to in a manner that exceeds expectations.”
While there were plenty of challenges on the trip, just as with any research work, the biggest difficulty they experienced in the end was slow internet. But that’s okay, says Aveed, “It was refreshing to learn how to live life without the internet and enjoy moments from the experience that do not necessarily need to be posted in the online world as a status update, a tweet or a check-in!”
iSTEP has been running for five years and while they’ve helped numerous communities in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Uruguay, Ghana and India, they aim to head back to the Mathru School for the Blind again next year to enhance the technology as well as conduct a needs assessment of the new centre. After all, says Professor Dias, students who have gone in previous years “exhibited tremendous personal and professional growth as a result of their experiences”.
She says students also gained invaluable skills such as real-world problem solving, collaboration and communication skills. “Finally,” she says, “participants learn to value the needs and potential of underserved communities around the world.”
And as Aveed believes – even though the internship tests you to your limits, it allows students to apply all the skills learned inside the classroom in a real-world setting. Above all, he says, “Being able to witness the positive difference one can make collectively with the team is all worth it.”