Get-hooked December 18, 2019
“We need a mentor to show us possibilities” – Blind Microsoft engineer Aditi Shah to NewzHook
Blind Microsoft engineer Aditi Shah is home on a break for a few months before she joins tech giant Microsoft at their headquarters in the United States. Aditi recently finished her master’s degree from the prestigious Georgia Tech university. In an in interview to NewzHook, Aditi talks about the challenges she overcame to achieve her dreams and her goal to be a mentor to blind women in India. That’s our focus on #StoryOfTheWeek.
NewzHook: Welcome home Aditi. Can you talk about the role you will be playing as a part of the Microsoft team?
Aditi Shah: I am joining Microsoft at their Redmond headquarters on 6 March. My work with Microsoft is related to what I studied at Georgia Tech, and that is cybersecurity and machine learning. Microsoft has a Security Response Centre which works on the security issues that come up with their products. My role will involve the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to help deal with these issues in a proactive rather than reactive manner.
NewzHook: In Mumbai you had focused on information technology and acquired certifications in hacking. Was that like what you specialised in at Georgia Tech?
Aditi Shah: In terms of what I wanted to study, the education in India was more generic. At Georgia Tech, I did a master’s degree in cybersecurity, the area I wanted to specialise in. I gained a ton of skills and a whole new perspective in terms of research. I worked as a research assistant, took up projects and this opened my mindset. When you work in an industry you think about delivering what people ask you too. It is very different when you do it from a research perspective.
Support at Georgia tech was enabling
NewzHook: What was the kind of support you received at Georgia Tech while pursuing your degree?
Aditi Shah: The biggest win was that everything there was electronic, and this was for everyone. No one had to submit anything on paper. This meant that I could take my exams on computer. While doing my masters here in India, I made countless appeals to the University of Mumbai asking for the same facility, but they went unheard.
This meant that getting someone to write math and other technical stuff was hard here. At Georgia Tech, I got equal access and equal opportunity to compete with everyone. And it was a competitive environment, with many people coming from big Indian schools.
There were some challenges too. I was the second blind student to enroll there. Before me there was just one other blind student. This meant that I had to work on sensitization, on how to make math accessible. I had to take a course in math, and this was challenging as they do it in Braille which I had not learned here.
The good thing was they had a dedicated office for people with disabilities. They got me a mobility trainer which helped me find my way around the 400-acre campus. This way I could take part in group projects. When I got there, I found that the cooking range in my apartment was touchscreen enabled. I wanted to cook for myself and asked for something accessible. They changed it in a few days. I also put Braille labels on the bottom of microwaves. They did their bit and I did mine to make the house accessible.
Challenges faced as a blind woman
NewzHook: You are living the dream of an independent woman, something that many blind women aspire to and are capable of. But they face many barriers. It couldn’t have been easy for you either.
Aditi Shah: Convincing my family was the biggest milestone. Even after I heard back from Georgia Tech, I had to sit down with my parents and convince them. They had their concerns. They said you have a good job where you are doing well, so why go this extra mile. But you must realise that someone can help you only so long. Today my parents are there to support me, but tomorrow is something goes wrong, what is my identity? When I was home, they would get stressed every time I stepped out. Either they come with me or stay home and be stressed
I felt studying in the US would be a good experience. My parents would realise that I could survive by myself. It is so important to stand up for myself. I see the difference that has come in me. I could go out when I wanted and see who I wanted to and not have to think of everyone’s convenience. This is something a lot of blind girls in India struggle with. I have been teaching JAWS to a bunch of young blind girls and I can see that lack of confidence in themselves.
At Microsoft, the support system is very good. I interned there last summer and was happy to be able to go to conferences by myself. If there was no system in place, I could speak up and ask for it. Such things make you feel that you are capable enough to survive any situation.
Mentoring blind women in STEM
NewzHook: You have been a mentor to many blind girls here in India. Do you plan to continue doing that?
Aditi Shah: I surely do because I find what people really need is a mentor. Someone who can direct them to the different possibilities that exist. I have continued to do that even in the US. Microsoft has a programme called Giving where employees volunteer with NGOs. During my internship there I volunteered with Boston-based NGO Vision Aid. I will continue volunteering with them.
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