AccessComputing Partner Profile: Kartik
Hi, my name is Kartik. I work on the accessibility innovation team at Microsoft at the intersection of engineering and product, co-founded I-Stem to enhance access to content for people with disabilities, and support technology at Our Ability to help people with disabilities find meaningful jobs. I am passionate about accessibility innovation and new experiences that will make it more delightful for people with disabilities. I have had several experiences over the years that have shaped my passion and now full-time work.
It all started when I was born in India. My parents were puzzled. The doctor told them that their son wouldn’t ever be able to see, and community members advised them on how they should be ready and willing to support me throughout my life. Many said education was not important and that careers like music were the only way to go. However, my parents had different ideas. They wanted to make sure that I could get the same education as my sighted siblings. I enrolled at a special school for the blind where I picked up basic skills such as traveling independently, learning braille, and using a computer with a screen reader. The last was a game changer for me. Here was something that I could use on an equal basis as my siblings, and I could access the vast expanse of information that was available to everyone else. This also meant that I could access the same educational content for the most part as my peers, and that teachers could grade my work at the same time. The school was also very progressive in that they thought that students with disabilities should study with students without disabilities and that any special resources or support should be provided. This understanding and realization that I should live my life as anyone else, aspire to achieve the same goals as everyone else, and get involved in all recreational activities as everyone else was very powerful.
Now, it wasn't all good. It was challenging to adapt to the new environment especially coming from a special school for the blind. Teachers did not know how to help a blind student, and I of course was clueless as a seven-year-old. But, there was this belief and resolve that we will figure it out; we will make it work. And this is what mattered. My mom figured out a clever way to engage me in art or painting classes, which was completely visual otherwise by pasting a thread or wool on the outline of the image so that I could not only understand the geometric shapes but also enjoy coloring the image. In the meanwhile, I started developing a lot of interest in technology, and by the time I was in high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a software engineer. But to do so, I had to pursue math and science in 11th grade. However, at that time, the central board of secondary education did not allow blind students to pursue STEM. I was very upset, didn't know what to do. My closest friends, teachers, and mentors all advised me to explore other opportunities and academic tracks, but I wanted to pursue sciences. After a lot of thinking, I decided to challenge the status quo. After a lot of effort, in November 2010, the board updated their rules to allow all blind students across the country to pursue math and science in high school. I thought that I had won the battle, but little did I know that it was only getting started.
I was in the 11th grade, frustrated at the inaccessibility of resources to learn math and science. There were no books that I could read with my screen reader, there were no diagrams in accessible formats that I could understand independently, and above all, there was no support or mentors. But then something happened that tested my patience. My teacher drew a graph on the board and of course I couldn't understand it. that was it. I knew I couldn't take this anymore and decided to give up science. But then, I thought back to all of the work that I did to enroll in science in the first place, and I knew I couldn't give up so easily. I went back to music, my hobby, and learned about sonification. This was encouraging, and I knew that I could successfully complete high school science education by leveraging technology and innovating. My teachers also realized by then that I'm not going to give up, so they finally decided to join forces with a shared determination to make it happen. And indeed it did, I not only completed science, but excelled at it. Technology was a great enabler.
Later, I applied to universities abroad and was fortunate to be accepted to Stanford, where I completed my bachelor's and master's in computer science. Stanford was very different. I had access to all the support, all the resources, and everything was great. Opportunities were immense, and classmates and professors excellent. But there was something missing, something big. I hadn't changed the situation back home. My juniors who wanted to study engineering in India couldn't. That is when I launched the project STEM Access that not only worked with the leading engineering institutes in the country to have them change their rules and become more acceptable to the blind, but also provided mentorship and support to students with disabilities. The program has since expanded and is now an edtech organization that is focused on enhancing content accessibility for people with print disabilities, particularly STEM and technical content.
At the same time, I wanted to develop my own skills as a software and AI engineer. Thanks to AccessComputing, I was able to get feedback on my resume, attend conferences, network with other community members and learn about the latest in accessibility. I interned at IBM Research, Microsoft and Uber, and took up a full-time offer to work for Microsoft after school. I joined as a software engineer on Cortana team , transitioned into AI, and finally got an opportunity to work on the accessibility innovation team. As part of this team, I help with the AI for Accessibility program, a public grant program from Microsoft that helps promote accessibility innovation. I also work closely with Microsoft Research and product teams to explore new opportunities and experiences that can leverage the latest in AI. While doing this, equal educational and employment opportunities for people with disabilities continue to be a big focus for me, and so this summer, I also joined Our Ability Inc. to contribute to innovative ways in which we can help solve the employment gap that exists in our community.
I am excited about the role that technology can play in realizing more productive and seamless experiences for everyone including people with disabilities and look forward to contribute to this field.