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Hackathon for the visually impaired at IIT Chennai – A truly magical event!

January 2nd, 2017 was a date which many of us @Vision-Aid had etched in our minds since August, when IIT Madras first approached Vision-Aid to help them train visually impaired students for a very unique event – a hackathon for the visually impaired as part of IIT’s annual Shaastra summit.  A team of 6 volunteer teachers in the US, 6 teaching assistants from IIT and 15 visually impaired students – adults and children, began an amazing and ambitious journey – to show the world that the differently abled can scale the most difficult heights with the help of a little technology, and with a little love and support.

Even to the most optimistic amongst us, it seemed like a difficult mission – with an uncertain trajectory. The goal was lofty. Teach a group of visually impaired students programming, helping them to learn a new language (Python) and develop a finished product they could show case at IIT on Jan 2nd – all this in just 3 short months of training, with most of them having absolutely no prior programming experience.

It all came together at the Shaastra summit at IIT on Jan 2nd. The enthusiasm and magic was palpable. Earnest ad smiling faces, full of optimism, groups of students huddled around in the morning as they put the finishing touches and the grand finale at the presentations in auditorium the afternoon.

The morning began in IIT’s center for innovation – where a bright, and energetic team of IIT volunteers greeted us, and all the participants at ~ 9:30am. We settled in, and the students began practicing and preparing for the big show in the afternoon.  One round table with adult students, and another table with the children from Devnar Blind School. Hunched shoulders, fingers pounding away at laptops and braille slates, animated discussions, and a sense of anticipation filled the room.

IIT student volunteers scurried around cheerfully, helping students along, and doing their best to ensure all of us were comfortable. We pulled away students briefly – as individuals or teams to interview them and to hear their inspiring personal stories and what they had experienced. Some really powerful and moving moments – captured on video – which we’ll share soon – please stay tuned! The theme over and over, was that of optimism, excitement and gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity, and  gratitude to their teachers and TA’s who worked with them so patiently over the past 3 months.

Post-lunch we moved to the auditorium – a relatively small but cozy  theater which lent itself nicely to a more intimate setting for the presentations.

IIT had invited 5 teams to present in the coding section– of which 3 had worked with Vision-Aid – and two had come in independently. The Devnar school kids were the first to go in for the VA segment. Each of the 6 kids showed off the program they had written and confidently engaged the audience in an interactive presentation. One of them asked the audience members for their name and showed how their program could generated a lucky day for that name. One of them showed how to convert temperature from degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit.  And so on. The audience loved it. The kids really enjoyed showing off what they had learned. Lots of clapping, cheering and smiling. Pushpalatha – Vision-Aid teacher was a great cheerleader on stage.

Next up was the (famous) “Bangalore team” – 3 blind students from Bangalore who had been lovingly mentored by their US teachers and IIT TA’s for 3 months. They confidently explained the game hey had built and showed how it worked. After the seemingly inevitable “technical glitch” in such events where the audio did now work initially, things got sorted out and went very smoothly and everyone loved the demo of the maze game. Bhargav, Sivapriya, Shailesh did an awesome job – presenting with confidence, energy and excitement.

Next, Ravi Teja – a visually impaired student from IIT presented his own game – Tic Tac Toe and everyone had a lot of fun in an interactive demo – trying to beat the computer.

Two other presenters (independent of Vision-Aid) showcased a novel “talking ATM” app and an inspired presentation by Kartik Sawhney (a blind student from Stanford) and his team that showcased a very novel search bot for the blind.

The event concluded with handing out of certificates and awards. Each participant got an IIT certificate, a Vision-aid certificate and a token gift  from Vision-Aid.

The Shaastra team – student volunteers from IIT did an amazing job and were rightly proud ad delighted at what they had pulled off.

Overall – a joyous and satisfying day for all. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who participated and contributed to this great event. What a great way to ring in the new year!

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