Anil Kumar Guntur is a BCom graduate from Osmania University. Although the 24-year-old passed out of college in mid-2018 and has appeared for over 20 job interviews since, nothing has materialised so far. Anil blames it on his disability.
“I am deaf, and while I truly need to improve my interview skills, my English skills—pronunciation, comprehension, grammar and vocabulary—are also not up to the mark,” he mentions.
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The deaf community in India tends to face several challenges on a daily basis when it comes to cognizance and communication.
While the WHO estimates that there are at least 63 million people in India who live with significant hearing loss, India’s National Association of the Deaf, estimates that 18 million people—roughly 1 per cent of the Indian population—are deaf.
Whatever the numbers may be, it is a struggle for the deaf to access appropriate education in India, and the learning gap that begins in childhood continues during the formative years and even beyond.
Bleetech Innovations, a startup based in Pune, is trying to bridge this gap by making design and technology-based solutions for the community, through two technological interventions.
The first is BleeTV, a free Android mobile application and web portal hosting a pool of content in Indian Sign Language (ISL), and the second is BleeTV Library, which is a similar platform with content curated especially for children.
Anil, who is a regular user of BleeTV, gives a thumbs up to the app. “I have been learning English on the app for free for the past one year. It is very helpful, and I feel motivated because I am constantly learning something new,” he says.
Turning a college project into a startup
Bleetech was founded in 2015 by Jahnavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar, when they were still studying Product Design at MIT, Pune.
“We worked on a project where we designed a smartwatch, that would help the deaf community to “listen” to music through vibrations,” says 27-year-old Janhavi.
However, prolonged interaction with the members of the community familiarised the two women to the hurdles that they faced, especially in the field of education. “Apart from a few exceptions, all the schools for the deaf in India focus on oralism, using speech therapy and lip-reading for communication,” states Janhavi.
Oralism is the system of teaching deaf people to communicate by the use of speech and lip-reading rather than Indian Sign Language (ISL), which ultimately hinders their learning process.
“They end up relying heavily on textbooks designed for their peers who do not have hearing issues, and struggle with understanding and reproducing the text. As a result, most deaf students have underdeveloped linguistic skills,” explains Janhavi.
So, in 2018, the duo launched BleeTV, a free mobile app and web portal, where deaf people can gain access to useful and informative content in ISL. Shortly after, the startup began BleeTV library, a digital platform, with special courses in ISL that are curated for deaf children to facilitate better learning.
The content on both the app and platform is in the form of videos, and the topics include news, financial literacy, current affairs, moral stories, English language, science and technology, self-help, among others.
Currently, there are over 1000+ videos on the app and digital platform, that have been created by Bleetech. They are also working with accessible content partners like Newzhook, which provides them with news content for their platform.
“Also, out of the eight employees who work with us on a full-time basis, four are deaf. This helps in various fronts as they contribute majorly in the kind of content we put out,” mentions Janhavi.
Operations and challenges
Today, Bleetech has 12,000 customers in 15+ states in India. Additionally, they are also working with about seven schools and cater to over 600 students in Pune.
However, the road to this success was no bed of roses.
“This was the first time Nupura and I were working so closely with the deaf community. It was a completely new environment and developing products in accordance to their needs was a challenge in the beginning,” explains Janhavi
With time, the duo could finally understand how to cater to the community. They even learned ISL, which helped them to not only communicate with their beneficiaries, but also their teammates.
Now, the challenges are different.
“We function in a space which has been viewed for the longest time as charity. We do not have any business model to look up to when it comes to navigating this space. So, we have to constantly innovate and see how we can monetise our products,” says Janhavi.
The duo also takes feedback seriously. “It helps us better the services we have on offer. I believe that in the future, this is going to help us scale our project while also creating a sustainable impact,” says Janhavi.
One of their most memorable projects was a pilot with the Red Cross Society School for Deaf in Pune.
Manisha Dongre, 56, has been the principal of the school since 1991, and is full of praise for Bleetech. “We have been working with them for over two years now and the response has been great. Many children in our school were struggling with the English language, and were also unaware of what is happening around the world because news wasn’t accessible to them,” she explains.
Now, with the help of BleeTV, there has been a marked improvement. “Often, textbooks fail to explain different concepts. But, through BleeTV, we have observed that since the children have their concepts clear, they are also able to express themselves better in the exams,” she says.
The tech solution has also received validation from various platforms. They were the winners of the National Entrepreneurship Award in 2018 and the Magnetic Maharashtra startup award in 2018.
In 2019, they received the Mphasis Universal Design Award by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).
Currently, the duo is working towards converting the content in school textbooks to ISL videos that will be available on the Blee TV app.
“So, if there is a paragraph in the science coursebook, there will be a QR code stickers corresponding to the paragraphs and sections. Scanning through the BleeTV app will open ISL translation of the content,” she explains.
This project was piloted in the Red Cross Society’s school , and the feedback has been positive, informs Janhavi. They now plan on scaling this programme and collaborating with content partners for this project.
“Working in the space of disabilities and inclusion has led us to find our vision. By providing simple, affordable and accessible solutions to the deaf community and their families, we want to make a positive impact on their lives and help them lead more fulfilling lives,” says Janhavi signing off.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)