MPower: Promoting braille literacy for visually impaired youth
TechBridgeWorld develops computing technology such as our Braille Writing Tutor which addresses challenges of visually impaired children in India.
About Your Organization
TechBridgeWorld, Carnegie Mellon University
United States, PA, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Country where this project is creating social impact
India, KA, Bangalore
Is your organization a
Non‐profit/NGO/citizen sector organization
How long has your organization been operating?
More than 5 years
Has the organization received awards or honors? Please tell us about them
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Name Your Entry
MPower: Promoting braille literacy for visually impaired youth
Select the stage that best applies to your solution
Growth (your pilot is up and running, and starting to expand)
How long have you been in operation?
Operating for 1‐5 years
Which of the following best describes the barrier(s) your innovation addresses? Choose up to two
The Need: What problem are you trying to solve?
The World Health Organization estimates there are 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired. Among them, 39 million are blind and 1/3 of the world’s blind are located in India. International efforts have made tremendous progress with treatment and prevention of visual impairments. Nevertheless, many children in India remain permanently and incurably blind. Most of these children lack access to education in braille literacy, an essential communication skill for visually impaired people. Those children who are in school typically learn to write braille using the slate and stylus method, which can be a challenging skill to master. An additional challenge is that few girls actually complete school in parts of India; some are pulled out prematurely for housework or marriage.
The Solution: What is your solution? Be specific!
TechBridgeWorld’s Braille Writing Tutor (BT) addresses key education challenges of visually impaired children in India by providing 1) basic braille practice through buttons designed as braille cell dots; 2) braille writing practice replicating the slate and stylus method. The BT’s electronic slate and stylus interface and braille cell buttons work in coordination with software that produces audio-based feedback to students through learning modes and educational games. The BT technology is highly customizable and has developed over several years in collaboration with the Mathru School for the Blind near Bangalore and other international partners. The BT complements teacher instruction or can be used independently for braille practice. Mathru empowers blind girls by providing access to education and working with the BT technology is additionally powerful. Most of Mathru’s teachers and staff are women and they were excited to be introduced to computing technology through the BT project.
The Model: Walk us through a specific example of how your solution makes a difference; include your primary activities
Since most Mathru teachers are also visually impaired, they give students exercises using a slate and stylus and evaluate performance by reading braille written by the student on paper. One student, we will call her Raksha to protect her identity, was diagnosed as not being able to write braille. Raksha’s writing assignments usually resulted in a single braille cell with all dots embossed. When Raksha tested our BT, to the teachers’ delight, the audio feedback demonstrated her ability to write braille. Raksha had been writing every letter in the same cell, thus creating the completely embossed single cell on paper. This was not evident to her blind teacher because the teacher could only feel the end result of the writing on paper; moreover, Raksha was unable to communicate well and explain what she was writing. Because our BT is able to interpret and read out aloud each letter as soon as the student finishes writing it, the teacher realized that Raksha understood how to write braille letters but had not understood that it was necessary to write each letter in a separate cell. In this way, the BT acted as a diagnostic tool: it highlighted Raksha’s unique difficulties and provided insight to the blind teacher. Based on this early experience, TechBridgeWorld has built several customizable features and games into the BT to meet students’ diverse learning needs. Members from our team conducted field studies, developed multiple BT hardware and software versions, customized the BT for multiple braille languages, and created diverse educational activities and games.
The Marketplace: Who are your peers and competitors? Identify others also working to address the needs you are and what differentiates you from them. What challenges could these players pose to your success or growth?
We define our peers and competitors as those who (1) develop educational technologies (2) for braille literacy in (3) underserved communities. However, there are few organizations that do all of these things. Furthermore, assistive technology seems to be moving towards the elimination of braille, as solutions focus solely on audio feedback or voice or computer input. These technologies are typically prohibitively expensive and more relevant to users in developed communities. The BT aims to preserve and promote braille literacy, thereby providing all the Rakshas of this world the opportunity to positively impact her life, school, country, and the world. Working with visually impaired in India, I learned anything is possible with the opportunity to build skills through the right training.
This Entry is about (Issues)
What solution(s) does your initiative address to better the lives of girls and women by leveraging technology? (select all applicable)
Access to technology, Access to education/training, Access to economic opportunity.
What has been the impact of your solution to date?
Ten community organizations across seven countries have provided feedback on the BT, including field tests in India, Bangladesh, Qatar, and Tanzania. The BT has been customized to accommodate six different braille languages. The BT offers students a fun and novel method of learning, resulting in detectable improvement in student motivation. At Mathru, young students spend 45 minutes attentively working with the BT; whereas their attention span during other academic activities is about 15 minutes. The BT has also helped break down gender barriers for female students and teachers at Mathru, by empowering them with the confidence to work with technology and inspiring them to further develop literacy skills. Given many girls in India are still denied access to an education, this is a significant result.
What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?
Our immediate goal is to scale up testing of the BT, expanding the impact and effectiveness of this technology at the Mathru School for the Blind and reaching out to other potential beneficiaries in India. We expect to conduct larger scale testing in several regions of India within the next three years. We will also focus on further BT customization for different locations in India through educational activities and games. Our final outcome within this time frame would be to finalize a design that is commercializable in India through discussions with organizations working with visually impaired people and industry partners.
What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?
Potential barriers to success include: communication challenges, resources constraints among partners, limited time on-site with partners, field work challenges, and technical challenges. Most of these barriers can be overcome by working closely with local people in India, which we have experience with through our partners at the Mathru School for the Blind and other contacts in Bangalore and other locations. Although technical challenges are expected given the unique nature of the BT technology, our university is world-renowned in computer science and as needed we will collaborate with diverse CMU colleagues as well as technical experts in India.
Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact
Integrated plan for expanding BT use among students and teachers at the Mathru School to enhance all their different activities
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Conduct an in-depth analysis to better understand current operations and programs at Mathru by consulting with school leaders.
Consult with students and teachers at Mathru to determine the next round of necessary BT customization features.
Develop a plan for evaluating the process and outcomes of the next phase of BT implementation at Mathru.
Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone
Concrete plan for scaled up testing to explore BT feasibility/effectiveness for educating blind in multiple communities in India
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Engage new partners from educational institutions, NGOs, government, and corporate entities interested in our BT work in India.
Identify necessary customizations of the BT hardware and software for communities outside of Mathru.
Raise awareness and pursue funding sources and income generating opportunities to support continuation/expansion of BT in India.
Founding Story: We want to hear about your "Aha!" moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution's potential to change the world.
After successful pilot work in India, our TechBridgeWorld Founder and Director had an opportunity to visit a school for visually impaired children in Western Zambia, in a much more remote community compared to the Mathru School in India. Although the school was closed for break and they had very limited resources in terms of facilities and electricity, the Zambian teachers and headmaster were very excited to learn about the BT and its potential impact. With only a few days on-site, our founder saw how the BT could really be customizable and applicable in other places. This experience has also helped our team understand how the BT needs to be flexibly designed for places with less access to power and less experience with computing technology.
Tell us about your partnerships
TechBridgeWorld has two partnership principles: respect and empowerment. We never go anywhere uninvited, and we always have a strong partner on the ground for long-term projects. Our partnership with Mathru is among our most successful partnerships, beginning in 2006 with a former student contacting the school to learn about challenges among visually impaired students. Personally, I have visited Mathru in 2008 and 2011, spending a total of three months working with colleagues and students at the school.
Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list
Our greatest needs: 1) funding resources; 2) connections for exploring commercialization. We continue to apply for funding as new investment is essential to continue and expand the BT. Human talent around innovative ideas is the best resource we can offer to others given our work with technology in underserved communities.