What I Learned Working with the Differently-abled / disabled : Empathy

For the past decade, I have worked with atleast 250 blind children and adults personally. While I work tirelessly to enable a better user experience through self-learning, they have been great teachers for me, teaching me empathy.

em·pa·thy
ˈempəTHē/
noun
noun: empathy
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

While I consider my path working with the disabled / differently-abled to be an uncharted territory, I was so hell bent on the delta change in their lives that I became ignorant to what happens next. In short, this thought blog is a hindsight piece, yet something I started practicing proactively in every piece of my handiwork.

Remember when once you are 18 yo (year old) teenager, oblivious to the world and the word ‘empathy’. At the time, I began my research on inventing a ‘self-learning’ map and diagram reader for visually challenged. Of course, at the time, I was so passionate about tech hardware and coding, that I didn’t know that I was enabling self-learning for the blind.

For my research, I started out spending a ton of time sitting through some of the classes at Institute for the Blind, Sector 26, Chandigarh in 2006. It is a school for the blind where there are many children who stay in a hostel. Most of their friends are blind and they trust their teachers with new information (and now, Google and YouTube).

In Action: Teaching at Class VII at Institute for the Blind

In the summer of 2006, I essentially sat down, removing my spectacles, trying hard to listen to the teacher carefully teaching the children a water cycle diagram in Class V, and exploring a tactile diagram for a water cycle. I spent at least a year sitting and learning with them, observing how a teacher would go to an individual student, hold his/her hand on different elements of the water cycle and explain. I found teachers to be tireless.

In the winter of 2006, I distinctively remember one visually challenged child, Monu, whose curiosity could never be satisfied. He is pretty talkative and expressive, not shy. Monu, a seventh grader at the time, was talking to me about electricity. That led me to a frenzied state when I wasn’t able to discuss with him about electrical circuits. So much so, that I ended up working on inventing a self-learning map and diagram reader so as to make Monu Ram able to learn about circuits on his own.

So, I created something like this:

Experiential Self-learning Map and Diagram Reader Invention
Front End GUI for Patent Pending Experiential Self learning Map and Diagram Reader
Research Report for KVPY Fellowship
Research Report 2

Developing the tech in 2006 -07, I stated working closely with visually challenged individuals to conduct experiments in the blind community in India. I carried out, determinedly, developing this tech into something useful. I must have produced at least 2–3 internal research reports such as the one below, furthering my research as to what started out as an independent research project.

Research Trials with Monu Ram at Institute for the Blind, Chandigarh

While conducting experiments with visually challenged users, I started seeing the world through their lens. One of the things — it may be very obvious now — but really wasn’t for me at the time, was to remove the color information from the explanations of cloud formation. The cloud wasn’t something that’s a white fluffy thing that sheds water, but it was something that was associated with the sound of thunder and the experience of getting wet in the rain. Aha moment!

This Aha moment completely changed my perspective on education in 2009. The more I thought about it philosophically, the more intrigued I became. After many rounds of experimentation, I realized that what they felt was that they were curious to learn the world by themselves.

Mr. J S Jayara (Headmaster) exploring Map of Major Cities in India
Blind Students placing tactile objects for MDR technology for experiential self-learning
Research Trials for Experiential Self-learning for Geometric Shapes on MDR invention

It took me time and perseverance throughout the years to understand this pain and be able to express it in an idea: self-learning resources based on their experience (Essentially what we at ARISE Impact today call user driven, experiential self-learning). Built for the blind, ground up. Not a mere audio recording of existing textbooks, not an automated e-reader based text solution, but a real experiential human audio based self-learning methodology.

With that idea, when I was able to go beyond observations, beyond saying what they say (talking their language) and even beyond feeling what they feel — to being able to express the underlying experience of a visually challenged person. That’s when I realized that I had learned empathy, and what it means to empathize with your end users. To feel their pain, to voice their need as if it were your own.

Steps to learning empathy:
1. Spend an exorbitant amount of time with your end users, observing them, stalking them (in the positive sense), talking to them
2. Experience the world through their lens
3. Be able to express what they are feeling

Like any skill, empathy can be sharpened by practicing it — with some community you care deeply about. By learning empathy, I learned to walk in the shoes of the differently-abled, understanding their struggles and needs. And as a result, I was able to develop my way of approaching the work that I do at ARISE Impact (www.ariseimpact.org ) — filling the need for and inventing a design methodology around experiential self-learning.

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