“What is required to succeed is not vision but A Vision,” said Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam to Kartik Sawhney, a blind boy who was studying in the 5th grade in New Delhi, India.
Kartik met Dr. Kalam, who was then the President of India, at a concert in which he performed as a trained Hindustani classical vocalist. Dr. Kalam’s encouraging words have remained with Kartik as his guiding ‘mantra’ in following his dreams and goals while overcoming enormous challenges. Staying true to Dr. Kalam’s advice, Kartik has followed his vision against all odds and placed his name in the history books as the first blind student in India to qualify for the CBSE grade 12 exams with the Science track. He has won several academic awards in India. He is majoring in Computer Science at Stanford University in the US since September, 2013 and is currently the only blind student at the university.
Kartik grew up in New Delhi in a loving and supportive joint family which includes his parents, a twin `sister, an older brother, his grandparents and his uncle and his family. He and his twin sister were born premature with normal vision and were in an incubator for 6 weeks. During that period, they were given excess oxygen which damaged the retina in Kartik’s eyes, due to a condition known as Retinopathy of Prematurity. This left him blind while his sister has low vision.
When he was about 3, his parents sent him to the National Association for the Blind, a special school in New Delhi, where he learnt Braille and other assistive technology that would help him to work independently. They have an integration programme which mainstreams students with disabilities. So, he studied grades 1 through 12 in two branches of the Delhi Public School (DPS). He also learned classical Hindustani vocal music from the 3rd grade for 8 years, receiving his Sr. Diploma from Prayag Sangit Samiti, Allahabad.
His initial ambition was to stay in India and study Computer Science at one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). He shelved that idea when he felt that they could not provide him with an equitable opportunity to write the IIT-JEE (joint entrance exam). After Kartik had months of discussions with them to provide him adequate and fair accommodations, such as a competent reader/writer for the exams., they agreed to give him a reader/writer for the exams, but added a discriminatory clause that he should be a grade 11 Humanities or Commerce (without Mathematics) student. Kartik thought that such a person may not be familiar with scientific terms and hence may not be an adequate reader. As a result, he decided not to take the IIT-JEE under these conditions which he felt were not fair to him. Instead, he took the accessible SAT exams in January, 2013, and applied to Stanford University for admission. He was surprised and excited when he got admission at Stanford with 100% financial aid which is funded by the Reliance Industries in India.
Learning Computer Science is not just a passion for Kartik but it is also a means for him to develop technology which will help and empower the blind. He is currently interning with Microsoft in their Redmond, Washington headquarters during the summer break of 2015 and working on improving the functionality of the Narrator (which is a Screen Reader) for Windows 10. His training in Hindustani vocal music found him a spot on a South Asian fusion a cappella group at Stanford, called Raagapella, with whom he has toured the US east coast and performed during AR Rahman’s visit to the US.
He is a very modest and highly motivated young man who credits his tenacity and success to the support of his family and the teachers at the National Association for the Blind school and the Delhi Public School in New Dehli.