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Sharon Lobo

IWB Blogger

These 2 Innovators Have Designed A Watch That Makes Deaf People’s Lives Better & Easier

  • IWB Post
  •  February 8, 2018

Janhavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar met during a tuition session for entrance exams. Their friendship kept budding while they shared the same room and decided to do all their college projects together. One of their college assignments then went on to become a startup idea and today they are part of this year’s Forbes India 30 Under 30 list.

Both girls are art lovers, and one of them is a Kathak dancer too. They used to visit the theatre often. However, one special performance by ‘Redcross School For The Deaf’ stayed with them. The girls realised that all this while, the dance instructor was sitting down giving the deaf students counts with her hand.

It was in their fourth year that Janhavi and Nupura Kirloskar, the founders of Bleetech decided to do a self-initiated project rather than an internship. They share their journey with us and give us insights into a community we are usually unaware of.

Tell us more about your idea.

Janhavi: We wanted deaf performers to be independent and confident so that they can enjoy the art form as much as we all do.

Nupura: The deaf dancers relate sound to vibrations. Before starting practice, they touched the wall of the loudspeaker to get the feel of the rhythm. So then we thought we could use vibrations to convey the speed. Then we made our first prototype and tried it out with them. This made them so happy. We had a really basic prototype, we used TV remotes, but it was actually helping them.

How do you envision your final product to be?

Nupura: It looks like a watch that anybody can wear. There is no social stigma attached to it. It does not look like an assistive device. Its notifications are also discreet. So only the person using the product gets notified, and nobody else knows.

Jahanvi: It is not only an assistive device but also a cool gadget.

What features will it have?

Nupura: It will have four main features. First, the feature ‘listen,’ where you can get a notification for different sound alerts happening throughout your day. Like doorbell, alarm clock, or a baby crying. Second is the talkback feature where you can save some sentences, phrases, words, and it will speak back. It is a good way to start any conversation. If I have a sentence saved like ‘I am deaf, could you please write down your message,’ it starts the conversation and reduces awkwardness.

Jahanvi: For example, when a deaf team member wants to call you, he has to come to you and tap you. Instead of that, we can just press a button, and the device would call out your name. These are very small things and, technology-wise, it is not something groundbreaking, but this adds a lot of value to what we are building.

Nupura: The third feature is the conversion of music into vibrations for deaf dancers. Lastly, there is a panic button, this feature is there in the app and on the watch as well. If you press that particular switch for 5 seconds, it will automatically call five of your emergency contacts and send your location.

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You both are from Pune and shifted to Mumbai last year. How did you cope with the struggles of living in a new city while running a startup?

Jahanvi: We had to get used to trains and traveling since we were staying in Mulund. We also felt that there were a lot of positives of living in Mumbai. Like the ecosystem that we got at Zone Startups accelerator, and the deaf community is much more mature and much more united in Mumbai than it is in Pune. This helped us not just in developing the product as a business but also in developing features and user experience, and connect with the community. If they know you and if they have trust in you, they’ll talk to you. Connecting with the community was the biggest thing that we got after we came to Mumbai.

Talking about team building, what do you look for in a person while hiring?

Nupura: We look for people who are open to learning the sign language. We just see if the person is open enough to take some extra efforts to communicate with them.

Jahanvi: So, for us, the priority is not someone who is very efficient with his/her work. Of course, that is a factor, but someone who is passionate about the space that we are working in. It needs a lot of patience and a lot of experience to get to know them and then implement those insights into your work.

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People are often confused as to how they are supposed to deal with a deaf person, so what do you suggest?

Nupura: Recently, I had a word with my friend who has a developmental disorder. He said, “People often use the term ‘specially abled’ and it is not the best word. For example, if I am in a class and my teacher says he is special then all the other kids start looking differently at me. We know we have different capacities, we also have different needs. So if you call us differently abled it is fine with us, but we are not specially abled. There is nothing special about having a disability.”

Jahanvi: Initially we also got awkward when we met someone deaf or blind. Also, small things like what term should I use, should I use deaf, handicap or hearing-impaired. We are so conscious about all these things because we don’t want to offend anyone. Now that we have started communicating with them we have become a part of their community. In terms of how you treat them like someone is short, this person is deaf. You look at it simply.

Tell us about one inspiring story you came across while doing your research.  

Nupura: One of our friends in Pune was studying in a regular school. She is deaf and does not use sign language. She has gone through speech therapy and can talk perfectly. Lip reading is amazingly difficult and if you can do it with one language, doing it for another language is an entirely new learning session. So this girl, her name is Neha, she can lip-read Hindi, Marathi, and English.

Jahanvi: For them learning a vocal language is the toughest thing because if you tell someone to spell ball, we know the phonetics but they don’t. We can just imagine the kind of efforts she puts in. She did her post-graduation from IIT.

Nupura: She told us that in college, learning a subject was twice as hard because she had to learn the subject and English at the same time. She also got a national award for one of her animation films, Unfold. That film has a story of herself. It’s a really beautiful film. This achievement of hers was so inspiring for us.

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What were the challenges you faced while raising funding?

Jahanvi: There were times when people didn’t take us seriously, but we don’t know whether it was because we are just out of college or the specialty of our product.

Nupura: I guess raising funds is a challenge for any start-up. People did ask us when you are planning to get married and what happens to the start-up when you get married. We also got questions like you do not have a technical background, so how you will develop a product?

What is the message you would like to give to people who are not acquainted with the community of deaf people?

Jahanvi: We did recently run a campaign on social media to teach people to say ‘Hi,’ ‘how are you’ in sign language. It was our attempt to bridge the gap. Their identity is not just deaf, that’s the thing we want people to understand. Just be open and go talk to them. We have ignored them long enough, now we have to take the efforts to correct it. Don’t sympathise all the time, they are very used to the fact that they can’t hear or they can’t see. Some people think 10 times about whether they should write ‘it was good to hear from you’ to a deaf person. It’s okay. It’s not a big deal!

What are other interesting things you’re planning to do now? 

Jahanvi: So, we are piloting the product. We realized that deaf people don’t have a lot of avenues to information. We did a small campaign. We asked people to inquire if they have any questions. We Googled answers and converted them into sign language. We got a really good response. We got questions from ‘What do you mean by adjustment’ to ‘what is RBIs new policy to get rid of bad loans.’ Then we started doing videos on YouTube. Now, this is a new stream.

This interview was first published on December 15, 2017. 

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