A warrior in the cause of digital accessibility - My Take by Sai Bhagat
June 11, 2019
A senior executive with Cdac Mumbai, Sai Bhagat's is the kind of story that has learnings for all of us. Find out why in his own words in My Take this week.
I was an average student in school, with all the usual dreams typical to most middle-class Indians. As I had blue eyes, I would get a lot of comments, positive and negative. I started facing severe problems with my vision in Class 10. By this time, I was using magnifiers to read and after consulting a few doctors, I found I had glaucoma in both eyes. I was told my sight would deteriorate eventually.
After cracking the Class 12 exam, I joined the National Association for the Blind (NAB) for a course in telephone operating. During this time, I lost vision in my left eye after the doctor botched up my surgery. I was devastated coping with my first experience of blindness.
With the support of family and friends, I continued with the daily routine. Of course, people looked at me with sympathy and some even said, “Don’t worry about life. Just sit at home, your brothers will take care of you”. Some even suggested I open a telephone booth for survival. This was really demoralising. I was not interested in this traditional option for disabled people so I decided to groom myself and start life with a different energy.
Initially it was difficult to ask for help while travelling in public transport or crossing the road but I started doing that. During this time many institutes in Mumbai were offering computer courses for blind people. I joined one that offered basic computer training and gained some confidence. Unfortunately, my right eye vision was getting worse and the transition from partial to total blindness was quite hard.
I found new hope when GTL Institute announced a diploma in computer programming for blind people. I cracked the entrance test and signed up for a two-year programme. This time I was completely focused on my training. I struggled a lot as screen readers were not fully compatible with the development environment. I developed great interest in computer programming and would spend more than eight hours in the NAB cyber café as buying a computer was not possible. Reading e-books, referring to online articles and solving problem statements using programming language was my only agenda. I completed this diploma with an outstanding grade and decided to try for a career in computers and IT services.
Based on my diploma I gave a couple of interviews but was rejected because of my limited academic qualifications. At the time, my close friend Prashant Naik was thinking of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Application. I decided to pursue the same. My elder brother filled up the admission form for me and paid my fees for the first year. Lectures and practicals started and I got busy in studies. By this time, my vision was hazy, and I started carrying a white cane though I used it ineffectively. My diploma background helped me understand programming concepts and helped me answer most of the questions.
Meanwhile, my friend Sanjeev got placed at Siemens as trainee programmer and this gave me some hope regarding job prospects. After my first semester, I also applied there and got as job as trainee programmer. This was the happiest day for me and for my parents. After struggling for over five years, I finally had a positive result. The initial months were hard as convincing seniors and colleagues about your skills and competencies is a tough task. Understanding new technologies and using inaccessible software was one of my biggest struggles but with the support of seniors and my exploration skills I managed well.
Handling your job and studies is exhausting but after my BCA, I enrolled for a Master’s in Computer Application and got a first class. With diverse technologies and projects on the work front, I developed myself as an experienced IT professional. In the span of nine years I was given two awards - Best Employee and Best Implementer.
With support and motivation from my buddy Prashant, I started doing voluntary work for the blind community in the form of technical trainings, awareness and sensitisation workshops. I was also involved in few advance trainings for corporate employees with visual disabilities. A couple of years ago I started my own blog and I post articles related to assistive technologies, accessible software, new offerings and generic topics related to disabilities. In 2014, I started with a community service called www.talkingatmindia.org with Prashant so visually impaired people could search for the nearest talking ATM. This is a first of its kind service which provides a centralised search of such ATMs installed by nationalised and private banks.
Last year after a rigorous selection process I participated in an international study program at Seoul, South Korea. It was a two-week event when I got to make a presentation on the topic of education for people with disabilities at the National Assembly there.
After nine years in my job I decided to switch but faced the same discrimination in spite of my experience and a respected degree. It was really disheartening but I decided not to give up. In 2016 the Ministry of Electronics, Centre for Development of Advance Computing (C-DAC) released a notification regarding a special recruitment drive for persons with disabilities. I applied and cracked the aptitude exam and got placed as a Senior Technical Officer. Getting permanent employment in such a reputed company at this designation was a dream come true. My parents and everyone around are very happy.
Along with my regular tasks , I took up the unique initiative of digital accessibility. This is an important and untouched area where government agencies are lacking experience so I decided to use my technical skills to make the Digital India story inclusive and accessible.
Last year I co-authored a research paper with my senior Dr. Padmaja Joshi and this has been selected for the 12th International Conference of Theory and Practice for Electronic Governance. Earlier this year, I traveled to Australia to present this paper and received an amazing response from the organisers and audience. This was one of the memorable tours in my life as I did many solo adventures and experienced a highly developed country with superb infrastructure which is disabled-friendly.
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