So, how was it?

It’s been a month and a half since iSTEP wrapped up and since then, many have asked me “How was India?” Such a big question that I’m equally guilty of asking my friends who have returned from studying abroad or other stays in foreign countries, and always such a difficult one to answer. Incredible and overwhelming, has been my short response.

To start with Incredible. The relationships built with Mathru teachers and students have been nothing short of incredible. Having worked with and for a range of communities and individuals on a variety of projects, I wasn’t sure how readily we would be embraced by the Mathru community and wondered about the relationships we could build as temporary researchers. The first month truly felt like we were constantly trying to retool their perceptions of us, and adjusting our understanding of the situation, to inch towards halfway somewhere mutual. In the second month, each passing week became easier, freer, and both teachers and I felt increasingly comfortable spending time with one another chatting about random topics. ICTD work should be first and foremost about communities, about people and their lives, and nothing reminded me of that more than what I learned through my deepening friendships with the Mathru teachers, staff, and students. There are some insights and experiences that can only be gained through fieldwork. In the last week the principal and a few teachers came up to me, sitting at the end of the day, to tell me that they were each so sad we were leaving. “You and this group truly became part of the Mathru family,” they said. I was so moved.

To end with Overwhelming. Not in the negative sense, but overwhelming in that everything was always going, moving, and there always was something more. Whether it was navigating the social dynamics between teachers and staff, or fielding stares and requests for photos anywhere we went outside, there was certainly no lack of things to ponder. This summer sparked a lot of questions for me, particularly about what it means to do truly “participatory” work in the frame of technology and the frame of development. I’m also left still thinking about the relationship between the time spent gaining an ethnographic understanding of a community (or a needs assessment, or getting to know a community, …) and the time spent developing and iterating on the technology. As I wrestle with what this experience has sparked for me, I am, at the end of the day, just really really excited.

Throughout the summer I just felt like this work clicked for me, in ways where all of my disciplinary experiences intersected in something that was challenging and invigorating. It also left me eager to live and work abroad for a few years, doing work in this vein and spirit. I’m beyond grateful for this experience, and look forward to this coming academic year as a time and space for me to sit and make sense of it all.

Musings Beyond the Field

It has been hard to summarize my feelings surrounding all that we did this summer. In part because we did so many new things, but more so because iSTEP is one of the reasons I am at Carnegie Mellon and it is now done. To now be past something influential in bringing me to CMU my outlook has changed going into the second half of my undergraduate experience. I am unsure of who post-iSTEP-Maya looks like but I do know that I am still realizing things I learned this summer, and will be doing so for a while.

While it has been hard to convey all iSTEP means to me, I do know that there is something different I learned about myself in each thing we tried. I also know that the hardest part of my summer was having my wisdom teeth extracted. The month long process included over 5 visits to the dentist and a few uncomfortable days after each extraction (my procedure was split side by side, rather than all 4 at once). The hard part was not being able to engage with the community I had so much anticipation of working with. Of course I notice that being directly at the schools is not the only way to be effective, but my being sidelined came right at a time that I was doubting myself in many different ways. My wisdom teeth made (read: forced) me to stop and recognize where I was (insert pun about wisdom teeth providing wisdom). It was important for me to rethink what “effective” meant to me. Pouting and complaining about why things were different kept me from acknowledging how things could change. The hard lesson that my wisdom teeth taught was what I needed to get back on track; I don’t think I would have listened to myself (read: Minnar) if it had been easy. While difficult to swallow, my wisdom teeth extractions forced me to get back up again and think about where I was going.

While many of our challenges were messy and unforeseen, there was little else we should have known prior. I say “should” because I think having all of the answers doesn’t show that you are up to the test. In fact, too much foresight would have ruined the surprise of our learning. I am in no way thinking that we knew all we needed to, simply that cluttering my experiences with tidbits about what I might see would have detracted from actually being there and seeing these things for myself.

While many of my thoughts remain unresolved and in no way fully summarized, I am sure that I will be reflecting about iSTEP for a long time to come. I would like to thank my iSTEP teammates, TechBridgeWorld and the Mathru Trust, my family, and everyone who followed along any part of our experience. I hope to share thoughts and stories as I continue to make sense of them.

The Magic of ICTD

Before this summer, I was completely certain that after graduation I would work at a Silicon Valley startup, enjoying the benefits of free meals and a gym at work.  Now I feel that many of these startups and tech companies make luxury products for a very thin slice of society, and that there are ways that technology, and the skills I will learn in the coming years, can be used for more meaningful and impactful change.  How did this paradigm shift come about?  It was really the ICTD work I saw, experienced, and helped complete at the Mathru Educational Trust for the Blind.

What is ICTD?  ICTD, which stands for Information Communication Technology and Development, is a very young field that studies the relationships between technology and development.  It has many facets, including studying how developing communities use and get access to technology, how technology affects developing communities, how technology can be developed to bridge gaps in developing communities, etc.  At the center of ICTD work is the community, and hence most ICTD projects involve spending time with the community to learn about them, their needs, and where technology can come in.  ICTD projects also tend to focus on making the technological sustainable, low-cost and culturally appropriate, and on involving the community in the development process in order to give them a feeling of ownership over the final product.  In short, the work iSTEP did this summer is an example of ICTD work.

The first and foremost part of my experience were the relationships I made with the community, which I discussed in Anna (Brother).  Because we did not come as experts or donors, who would observe the community, give suggestions or donations, and then leave, I felt we were able to get a lot closer to the individuals at Mathru.  We came as people who would observe the community, really gain a deep understanding of the individual and group mechanics of Mathru, and then work with them to develop tools that we both have ownership over.  This role allowed us to form relationships based on equality and respect with members of the community.  I made life-long friendships with the teachers, students, and staff at the school, based on long conversations we have had about our lives and aspirations outside of school or work.

Our last day -- goodbyes to all the fabulous friends we made at Mathru
Our last day — goodbyes to all the fabulous friends we made at Mathru

The second part of my experience was the work.  Through our initial observations and conversation with members of the Mathru Centre community, we realized that speech therapy was a huge need at the school.  Speech Therapists were exorbitantly expensive, and they didn’t have the time to work one-on-one with every student on a regular basis. To get around this, student’s everyday teachers would lead a speech class 2-3 times a week, where they would show students lip or tongue movements and have them practice the words or sounds she was making.  This process, however, was very exhausting on teachers.  Further, many of the students were pre-verbal, and struggling to make any sounds at all. To solve these problems, we developed Speak Up! Voice Powered Game Suite.  

Speak Up Menu
Speak Up! is a suite of games that respond to student vocalization, volume, and pitch.
Volume Meter
Volume Meter displays the volume of a student’s voice on the scale, giving the student numeric and chromatic ways to understand volume

Speak Up! Is a collection of games that are operated by student vocalization, volume, and pitch.  The games  focus on giving students ways to visualize voice.  For example, Volume Meter gives them a numeric and chromatic way to see how loud their voice is, and Drive to Mathru gives them visual feedback on when they are making sound and when they aren’t.  The development of Speak Up! was largely shaped by observations of and conversations with the teachers. For example, one teacher had trouble keeping students engaged in the speech class as they practiced sounds.  To solve this, we made a number of Free Play games that are rich in graphics, go on forever, and can be used as the teacher pleases.  Another teacher used real objects and had students say the word of the object as she lifted it up.  Based on those observations, we made Picture That!, a customizable mode that gradually displays a picture as students speak.  

In Picture That!, as a student speaks a picture appears. This game allows teachers to add and categorize pictures, allowing them to shape the game to their curriculum.
In Drive To Mathru, any sound the student makes moves the rickshaw. However, as the rickshaw is going over a bump, they have to keep vocalizing, otherwise the rickshaw will roll back down!

We focussed the last two weeks on training teachers on this technology, and observing its use in the class.  And boy, was it successful!  We noticed one girl, who formerly used to mimic her teacher’s lip movement but never make any sound, start making sounds.  We saw one teacher, whom we had never taught how to use Speak Up!, using it in her speech class without any stimuli from us!  We saw teachers experimenting with which modes they found most useful, information that will inform future development on the games.  We were definitely able to leave feeling confident that teachers actually found the games useful and would continue using it even after we were gone.

Speak Up in Use
A teacher using Speak Up! in her speech class

The third part of my experience was travel and cultural immersion (believe it or not, even though I am Indo-American the “Indian culture” I know is very different from Indian culture today.) Whether heading out to Cubbon Park and serendipitously stumbling upon a HONY-type art exhibit about Bangalore, or venturing into Dharavi slums in Mumbai and coming out awed and humbled, living and traveling in India has shown me many different ways of life and perspectives on the world.  I noticed the interesting duality that, in India, the guidelines of hospitality make people continuously overload your plate with food, but the rules of not wasting mandate that you eat it.  I enjoyed visiting family friends and relatives, many of whom I had never met before but were somehow related to me through my extended family.  I enjoyed being independent (especially in Mumbai,) and being able to navigate a city solely by rickshaw or public transport.  I also loved the close friendships I was able to make outside of work, with the night guard of our building, or with a staff-member’s cousin who lived across the street from the School.  All of these came together to give me a fabulous and enriching cultural experience, that would have been hard to get without culturally immersive ICTD work.

The Mysore team visiting the 12th century temples in Belur, Karnataka.
The team visiting the 12th century temples in Belur, Karnataka.

My professional priorities have changed.  I would much rather do iSTEP-like ICTD work, which will both be enriching for me and be impactful to the community, rather than making apps, websites, or services for the technologically-skilled living in developed countries.  I would much rather live with the community I am developing for than make “solutions” from thousands of miles away.  Yes, the opportunities in ICTD are currently limited and it will no doubt be a more difficult path to forge.  But this is the perfect way to combine my interests in culture and technology, and bring about meaningful change on individual and communities around the world.

Students at the Mathu School, ready to perform their "Ringa Ringa" dance in front of an auditorium full of people
Students at the Mathu School, ready to perform their “Ringa Ringa” dance in front of an auditorium full of people

Say No To Your Dream – Say Yes To The Dreams of Those You Can Make Possible

Last October 31st I sent in my application for an internship at the company I longed to work for – an application I thought and prayed about for months. It was my dream internship. I meant to apply earlier, but never felt like I was ready. And I still didn’t feel ready as I applied that day…my hands trembled as I clicked submit.

Last May 21st I boarded a plane headed to India. It was a place I had never been, on the opposite side of the world – a journey I had thought and prayed about for months. It would be my longest time ever abroad, 9 weeks. I had made many preparations, but never felt like I was ready. And I still didn’t feel ready as I boarded that plane…my hands trembled as I said goodbye to the place that was my home.

Back in October, three days after I had applied for my dream internship, I talked with the recruiter. I had done the first interview task quite well and really in fact, had enjoyed it. However, I told the recruiter that another opportunity had come up, an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Nine weeks after I boarded that plane, I was coming back home. As I saw the bustle of international faces I could think of nothing but the faces of the children, teachers, and close friends I was departing from. Instead of my dream internship, I had come to know and love a community in a place I had never heard of, and been able to leave a mark in that place through technology and my skills, but even more so through new connections of the heart.

I had said no to my dream internship to instead develop technology for the deaf and hard of hearing and blind in India. I thought I was crazy to do so. And that feeling sometimes persisted even while I was there. But I tell you now, it was worth it. It wasn’t easy – at any point – but it was worth it.

And as I write now – jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, with a cold and newly-diagnosed ear infection – I wish to share the story of this experience with you. It is not a simple story, nor is it short. But I hope it will be worth the read.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

I will continue to introduce this story even further back in time to when I was born. I was born with 80-90 dB hearing loss in both ears, diagnosed as severe to profoundly deaf. Because infant hearing screenings were not conducted at birth back then, it was not discovered until I was 12 months old.

My mother, who had studied child and family development in college, knew how much this could set me back, and was worried about my development with this critical delay. She prayed that I would one day be able to be independent and support myself with a job. This was her dream for me in this place of worry and fear.

At one year old, I was fitted with two hearing aids and brought into a Birth-to-3 program at Milwaukee’s Center for Communication, Hearing, and Deafness (CCHD), the only program in the state with such assistance for my needs – which happened to be within 10 minutes of my house. There I had early intervention with speech therapy and being taught American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. So I was raised with fluency in both ASL and spoken English through the excellent and loving people at CCHD as well as my family learning sign and using it with me at home, in addition to exposure to spoken English through my hearing aids.

I was “mainstreamed” into public school with the help of an FM microphone system that helped me understand what the teacher said, and more personally, a sign language interpreter in every class with me, to ensure I could pick up everything the teacher said when my hearing technology (often) wasn’t enough.

I continued speech therapy through my early years (much to my displeasure – it was one of the most boring and frustrating things I have ever had to do) and many people commented that they couldn’t tell I was hard of hearing.

When I was 16 years old, a family friend asked my mother if I had considered a cochlear implant. In Wisconsin, it is required for insurance to cover cochlear implant costs for children under 18 who would benefit from it. After some hearing tests, I was told there would be a benefit and went for it. A year after the surgery, the tests had shown that I gained a 25% increase in single-word comprehension (one of the toughest tests, since there is no context for the word like I would have in ordinary situations).

Many (if not all) of these accommodations throughout my life were made possible through the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was passed into law in 1990. I was born in 1993. Lucky.

Lucky. Lucky. I am nothing but fortunate to be where I am and grateful to my parent’s prayers and God in heaven to be where I am today.

Today I am at Carnegie Mellon University studying in both one of the leading Electrical and Computer Engineering programs in the nation as well as perhaps the most well-known Human-Computer Interaction program in the world. This not by my own merit, but I truly believe by the support of so many along the way.

Now I am able to see my disability as a blessing, for all the ways it has brought me into a more compassionate understanding of the world and how my struggles with being hard of hearing have cultivated a heart of gratitude towards God and other people.

And today, my mother’s dream has become reality and even more so than she ever thought possible.

This is the beginning of my story.


From the telling of my past, I have but one story of deafness. This summer, across the globe, I was able to meet and get to know deaf children in India and understand part of their story and their situation.

In India, (according to the World Health Organization) 6% of the population has “disabling hearing loss”, with most hearing loss and deafness in India coming from causes that would be preventable with proper treatment.

At the Mathru Center for the Deaf and Differently-Abled, this very likely applies, since most children come from rural family environments. That means many of the children have deafness caused by a high fever that was left untreated, or another preventable cause. It breaks my heart that many students have hearing loss that could have been prevented and likely also had little proper support and care after its onset. (And that there are many more unknown children out there who aren’t getting any care.)

Through the generosity of the Mathru Educational Trust and those who support it, the children at the Free School for the Hearing-Impaired (part of the Mathru Center for the Differently-Abled) are able to receive education, housing, food, and care for no cost to the family. It was already an inspiring place to be able to contribute with our team’s work.

The first thing I noticed at the Center was that my ASL was not understood, outside of fingerspelling English words. We asked about what sign language was used and were given a dictionary of Indian Sign Language, developed in the late 1970s. This was not quite what they used either and eventually we realized their sign language was a very local version, which we called “Kannada Sign Language” after the area’s locally spoken language. Basically, we had found no available reference or dictionary for the signs we were seeing, with barely a mention even online.

Where this became especially noticed was with the new teacher at the Center when we first arrived. She had to pick up the local sign language only from other teachers or asking the students for signs. This all while she was adjusting to teaching at a new school with the added difficulty of teaching children who could not hear, and thus who she could not communicate effectively with or verbally discipline as is necessary in the early grade levels of Kindergarten through 4th offered at the school.

What’s more, in our second week two other teachers left the Center, leaving two vacancies. There are only four teachers for the deaf and hard of hearing at the Center. This then left only one teacher who had been at the school for more than two weeks.

Observing further in the classroom, we noticed teachers explaining objects or concepts frequently through pictures. Because the teachers had a limited sign vocabulary to work with, they often showed concepts through hand-drawn diagrams and scenarios on the chalkboard or through many hand-made or store-bought flashcards or posters. In class, teachers went back and forth between showing a picture, a written word, and the sign for that word with the students.

By our fourth week there, there were three new teachers, excited to work with the children, but daunted at the amount of effort it takes with all the adjustment, learning sign language, and preparing these visually-based lesson plans.


Beyond just the atmosphere of the Mathru Center, there were many cultural forces against us and our work to help deaf children – including many cultural misconceptions about deafness. Through our time there and talking with different people in the school and outside, we discovered a conception of deafness in the general populace of India roughly similar to the following:

  • Those without hearing are deaf and dumb; they cannot hear, communicate, nor think properly or as fully as a normal person.
  • The deaf and dumb use gestures in their attempt to communicate. They must be taught spoken language in order to be educated and think as we do. Their sign language cannot communicate complex thought, it is only a rudimentary set of gestures allowing for very basic communication.
  • Sign language is universal – anyone with some training can learn the same gestures that the deaf use.
  • The deaf and dumb are able to see and work with their hands. Thus they are not disabled.

However, I present also here the corrected and informed views of deafness (even misunderstood in America by many!):

  • Those without hearing are deaf; they cannot hear, but with the right access to language (through sign or spoken language with hearing aids) they can be as fully functioning as a hearing person. They can function as a member of hearing society with accommodations and/or within a Deaf community based around a shared sign language to communicate and their own Deaf (capital-D) culture.
  • The deaf use sign language to communicate, which can convey information just as rich and complex as spoken language can. And in some ways, even more richly (through use of 3D space and facial expression, for example).
  • Sign language is not universal, with many versions just as spoken language has: American, British, Indian, Australian to name a few. One who knows only American Sign Language cannot understand someone who speaks British Sign Language, for example.
  • The deaf are able to see and work with their hands, but are disabled in society by many communication and hearing barriers (not being able to communicate easily with the average hearing person, can’t hear critical sirens or fire alarms and such) for which they require assistance or accommodation to function equally and fully as a member of society.

So while we were learning to understand Indian culture, we were also coming to understand the misconceptions around deafness in India. Using my knowledge as a hard of hearing individual and past education in ASL and Deaf Culture in the US, I was able to discover these misconceptions and speak with teachers and a reporter about a better understanding of deafness. These misconceptions were hard to hear but were important to know and inspired and fueled our work even more as people committed to helping this misunderstood people group.


From all these insights both about the Center and Indian cultural perceptions of deafness, we thought about how we could help with technology. We first knew that there was a very clear need for a way for new teachers to be quickly trained in learning the local sign language.

Our first step was to film and edit two videos to help new teachers: one of the Kannada alphabet in sign language (with 51 letters!) and another of commonly used phrases. We also posted the videos on YouTube, so that these basic resources would be freely available online about Kannada Sign Language.

But how to make a better form of a dictionary or reference for them? We certainly didn’t have time in 9 weeks to document an entire language. The solution then seemed to fall in the hands of the teachers to self-document their sign language through some kind of video-taking and saving reference tool.

So around our third and fourth week in India, we began looking at all the requirements and brainstorming ideas from our observations. We wanted a tool that would allow teachers to record videos of signs, categorize them into lessons and units, and teach and learn the signs from each other. With the visually-based teaching methodology, we also wanted abilities to take or upload pictures in the tool. This way the teachers could integrate this dictionary as a tool for each other to learn signs as well as a classroom tool featuring a simultaneous juxtaposition of signs, videos, and English words.

Alongside the cultural conceptions of deafness, there was also a greater hope in this project that it could combat misconceptions of deafness by showing the rich vocabulary of sign language and by providing access for sign language learning to more people. Through the spread of this tool, many others could potentially understand deafness better by learning the language of the deaf and being able to communicate with them, the first step to understanding.

So we had the basic ideas and vision. The next critical problem: how?


In choosing the technology for this sign dictionary creator, we thought initially tablets would be great – very portable and easy to use. However, the teachers were unfamiliar with tablets and preferred computers or laptops. And all were more likely to gain better technology literacy from using a keyboard and mouse interface that could transfer to other tasks with computers in the future.

From the laptop interface decision we had to choose the programming language for the application. The team knew only three languages well: Python, C, and web languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript). Looking at what could support a heavily graphics-based experience with data storage, web languages proved to fit best and allow for the quickest development. However, this choice left me alone in my knowledge of web languages on the team, which left it difficult for my teammates to assist developing this project.

Thus began the huge task of creating this application from scratch, an application that would feature video and picture capturing, picture uploading, and creation, editing, updating, deleting, and categorizing of dictionary entries. In addition to this work was my part in all the projects our team was doing at the blind school including fixing and updating the braille tutors there and training teachers and staff on useful technology and web tools.

Around the sixth of nine weeks in India, I was overwhelmed. We had seen a great opportunity and need for this technology, but would we be able to finish it in time?

I started to code everywhere – at both schools, at home, in the car – and slowly the features came around. But for every feature that was added – several others broke or created more programming bugs. It was three steps forward, two steps back.

Along the way, we showed the experienced teacher at the Center the video capture tool (as one of the first features that was developed) and she became familiar with it and could use it well. Later we showed how to create words and topics and organize the dictionary. Slowly the teachers and us all became more excited at the potential – but it was not yet fully usable, filled with bugs, potential data erasures, and frustrating glitches.

In the beginning of the summer, I had pictured a few weeks at the end of summer to test the application, see how it was used in class, and iterate on it with the suggestions of the teachers. Now I was simply asking myself – would I even be able to leave anything usable behind?


At the beginning of our final week in India, the ninth week, the application was finally coming together but still not quite there. Tensions and stress ran high on the team as we tackled many different objectives and final things to do in this week – four presentations, a 30-page report, wrapping up three projects including documentation, help guides, and training teachers for each.

And I constantly felt I was the most behind – my application was still on the edge of working, almost there, but brought down by critical bugs. Most of all, on the new laptops we had gotten donated for the Center, the video recording was far too laggy to use and made the teachers frustrated. I had three days left to leave whatever I would leave behind, could leave behind.

At this point, I thought of the children. I thought of the opportunities that I had growing up. I thought of all the knowledge I had been given through assistive technology and all the ways technology had benefitted me. I thought of this special opportunity to come to India. I thought of the leaders and donors of TechBridgeWorld who had made this trip and program possible for my teammates and I. I thought of the gracious hosts at Mathru, including Ms. Muktha who had given so much to welcome us and make us feel at home. I thought of the hard-working teachers we had gotten to know who give so much with the little resources they have to give these children an education. I thought of the children. By statistics alone I should be one of them – a deaf child born in a developing country, without access to all that could help them.

But I was here. I had been given all these things throughout my life, and was now potential access for them to some of what could help them. And as far as I was able, God-willing, I would not leave without leaving something helpful to them. Not for my own sake, but for those I had dearly in mind, who were the reason I was here.

With this, I put my headphones in, chewed gum, whatever I was able to do to stay up in the night and code through the remaining difficulties. I changed the video format to allow non-laggy recording. I found all the remaining errors in the code I could find. And with a little perseverance and a little prayer, I was able to bring the teachers something helpful the last two days at the Center. Or, that I hoped was helpful. How would the teachers respond to the final technology? This was the final test…


I brought the finished product, now named SignBook, to the Center on our final Wednesday with the teachers. I spent as much time as I was able showing the teachers SignBook, training them, and them letting them use it on their own to test their independence with the tool and add topics and words of their own!

“This is very good because I can learn on my own and be fine teaching to the children. If I ask [the other teacher] she will teach me after 4:00 PM, but now I can ask and she will enter in this. I will see again, repeated, how to do the sign – it is the easy way! I can easily see this and then teach to the children.”

After an hour of training one of the new teachers, I quickly jotted down this quote of hers. SignBook had captured her excitement and imagination.

“This is a most wonderful thing you have done. Now anyone can document their sign language, and even give a copy to others to learn! This has so much potential. Potential to provide access to a family, a community, to communicate with the deaf. I am proud of you. I am proud of your team.”

This quote, paraphrased from a visitor to the school who saw our team’s projects, voiced the early hope I had, the ambitious and far-reaching hope that this could provide greater access to the deaf, their language, and change perceptions of deafness in India.

My heart leapt at these words and the interactions with teachers and staff the last three days at Mathru. They had picked up using SignBook more quickly than I had thought possible and each voiced their excitement at its potential. There was even a moment when 20 children gathered around as I trained a teacher, all engaged with SignBook as I used it to test their knowledge of words the teachers had input.  Their faces lit up as they burst with excitement to proudly show their sign language knowledge and see more of what was on SignBook.  I had done something good. I had left something usable, and useful! I could breathe easy.

Make no mistake – this is merely one part of our team’s work, merely one aspect of our story. iSTEP 2015 made incredible impact with our short time in India. And I could not have done anything without Minnar, Maya, Amal. Though I may have written the code for this one project, there are innumerable ways this project and the total impact of our summer was critically made possible by the efforts of my teammates.

At the Mathru Center there are now two laptops, both with a copy of SignBook, which exists as a simple folder containing all the dictionary data and an application interface runnable with a double click. This folder can also be simply copied to another computer – able to be spread very easily on thumb drives, which leads to the feasibility of widely spreading knowledge of sign language among anyone with computer access. Since TechBridgeWorld continues a partnership with the Mathru schools there is also potential for future development and iteration upon this first prototype of SignBook.


To close this story, I am so grateful for this opportunity and for everything that led me here – not the least including my deafness. If there is anything I hope to leave you with, it is these words:

Sometimes we must say no to our dream in order to say yes to the dreams of those you can make possible.

We each have a unique and powerful role to play on this earth. With noticing eyes for those in need and love for those less fortunate than us, let us not neglect the impact we can make upon the lives of others through our God-given gifts. You may discover things even greater than your dreams can foretell.

Mysore: A Journey through History

A weekend ago we headed south to see temples, palaces, and more around the city of Mysore. Below are some moments from the trip, along with interesting tidbits of history and culture that we learned about!  (All factual information is paraphrased from Wikipedia.)

First stop: Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebidu, built over 800 years ago.
First stop: Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebidu, built over 800 years ago.
Inside the temple - naturally lit.
Inside the temple – naturally lit.
The three main Hindu deities - Brahma,  Shiva and Vishnu, who act as the Creator, Destroyer and Sustainer, respectively.
The three main Hindu deities – Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, who act as the Creator, Destroyer and Sustainer, respectively.
Depicting a story from Hinduism: "The people of Vrindavan workshipped Indra, the god of rain. Indra was very proud and arrogant and so Krishna decided to teach him a lesson. One day, he told the people that instead of worshipping Indra, They should worship the Govardhan Mountain and its forests on which their livelihood depended.  Lord Krishna lifting gavardhana mountain on the little fingerThe people of Vrindavan obeyed Krishna and stopped worshipping Indra. Indra became angry and decided to punish them. He called upon the clouds, which were under his control and asked them to rain continuously over Vrindavan. The people were terrified by the heavy rains and thought that the flood would destroy their village and they would all die. Krishna lifted the Goverdhan entire mountain on the little finger of his left hand. He held the mountain like an umbrella for seven days and seven nights over the people of Vrindavan .  At last, Indra realised his mistake and was ashamed. He asked the clouds to stop raining and apologised to Krishna." (from
Depicting a story from Hinduism: “The people of Vrindavan workshipped Indra, the god of rain. Indra was very proud and arrogant and so Krishna decided to teach him a lesson. One day, he told the people that instead of worshipping Indra, They should worship the Govardhan Mountain and its forests on which their livelihood depended.  The people of Vrindavan obeyed Krishna and stopped worshipping Indra. Indra became angry and decided to punish them. He called upon the clouds, which were under his control and asked them to rain continuously over Vrindavan. The people were terrified by the heavy rains and thought that the flood would destroy their village and they would all die. Krishna lifted the Goverdhan entire mountain on the little finger of his left hand. He held the mountain like an umbrella for seven days and seven nights over the people of Vrindavan.” (from
Same temple?  Nope, actually the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur.  Made by the same king from the 12th century, 16 kilometers away.
Same temple? Nope, actually the Chennakeshava Temple in Belur. Made by the same king from the 12th century, 16 kilometers away.
Minnar among the ruins.
Minnar among the ruins.
The Hoysala temple complex.
The Hoysala temple complex.
The entrance to the Brindavan Gardens, by the the Krishnarajasagara dam.
The entrance to the Brindavan Gardens, by the the Krishnarajasagara dam.
A fountain light show.
A fountain light show.
Walking through the expansive garden at night.
Walking through the expansive garden at night.
We spent two hours in line for the Chamundeshwari Temple at Chamundi Hills, where we were the entertainment as the non-Indians in line (note the people staring confusedly in the background).  Throughout the line we talked with people and posed for pictures with them.
We spent two hours in line for the Chamundeshwari Temple at Chamundi Hills, where we were the entertainment as the non-Indians in line (note the people staring confusedly in the background). Throughout the line we talked with people and posed for pictures with them.
The Mysore Palace, the official residence and seat of the the former royal family of Mysore, who ruled the princely state of Mysore from 1350 to 1950.
The Mysore Palace, the official residence and seat of the the former royal family of Mysore, who ruled the princely state of Mysore from 1350 to 1950.
The palace's architecture takes elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture combined with British Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles.
The palace’s architecture takes elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture combined with British Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles.
Minnar, Maya, and I just hanging out after much walking.
Minnar, Maya, and I just hanging out after much walking.
Candid pic from Tipu Sultan's father's tomb.  Tipu Sultan was a ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, scholar and poet, and recognized as one of the greatest South Asian rulers of all time.
Candid pic from Tipu Sultan’s father’s tomb. Tipu Sultan was a ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, scholar and poet, and recognized as one of the greatest South Asian rulers of all time.
Sangama, where three holy rivers meet: the Kaveri River, Kabini River, and Hemavati River, off the river island town of Srirangapatna. By the water, people come to perform holy rituals and rites.
Sangama, where three holy rivers meet: the Kaveri River, Kabini River, and Hemavati River, off the river island town of Srirangapatna. By the water, people come to perform holy rituals and rites.
A group picture from my favorite stop in Halebidu.
A group picture from my favorite stop in Halebidu.

Hope you enjoyed hearing of the historical and cultural adventure of the iSTEP team in Mysore!

GIFs Galore!

Here’s an update (and demo!) of what I’ve been working on the past week or two.  Prepare for GIF madness!


After a few visits at the Mathru Center for the Differently-Abled, we realized that their sign language is very unique and there is no reference or dictionary for the language.  This makes it hard for new teachers to learn the sign language, which is especially important since there is a shortage of teachers trained in teaching the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Many teachers must pick up sign language on the job! This can be a very demanding and difficult task, which we’ve witnessed this summer with many new teachers just starting out at the Center.

This led to the project I have been mostly working on, which is creating a way for teachers and students to document their sign language to form a community dictionary reference.  This reference is to be used at the school on laptops or in the computer lab through a locally hosted website (so they won’t need internet and can store the video files on their computers).

We envision several possible use cases (and shall see how the school chooses to use it):

  • Training new teachers in the sign language
  • Helping students learn and review vocabulary
  • Familiarizing students and teachers with using a web application without needing internet access to use it (increasing computer literacy skills)
  • Creating a reference for the largely undocumented local sign language
  • More broadly, initiating an open source, general use sign language dictionary-making website

The first step in this project was to make a content creation tool – namely, for capturing short sign language videos.  Searching online, there was no easy way to capture, edit, and save GIF videos on the web but there are javascript libraries that allow you to accomplish each of those steps individually.  The last week or so has been combining these javascript libraries to make a GIF video recording tool.

Check out the demo using the link below!  (Works only on Google Chrome and Firefox browsers.)

Here is the basic user experience to create a gif video (will be changed more specifically for the context of the sign language application):

The start screen.
The start screen.
After allowing access to the camera, you can record!
After allowing access to the camera, you can record!
During recording.
During recording.
The editor window.
The editor window.
The video can be trimmed with the sliders.
The video can be trimmed with the sliders.
The save button downloads the GIF video!  (This will be changed for the Mathru Center application to save it to their dictionary database.)
The save button downloads the GIF video! (This will be changed for the Mathru Center application to save it to their dictionary database.)
And here's the gif!  (It is American Sign Language for
And here’s the gif! (It is American Sign Language for “magic”.)

I tested the video capture application a lot with my teammates, which has led to many bug fixes as well as a hilarious set of GIFs saved on my computer.  Here’s one from when the power went out while we were testing.


We also tested it with a teacher, and so far it seems easy to use!  Next week there will be an added interface for sorting words by category and browsing different signs.

Hope you could check out the demo and make some GIFs of your own!  We’ll keep you posted on how the project develops.



Anna (Brother)

“Brother.  Brother, what is your name?”

This was how I was greeted one fine morning in Week 1, when I was lounging on the terrace of Mathru reading “Bollywood’s India.”  There was a student coming up to me, excitement in his eyes.  After we exchanged names and where we were from, he continued.

“Brother, I have heard that in Chicago eating pizza gives you a brain tumor.  Is that true or not?”

That was the beginning of a great friendship, not just with this one student but with many students and teachers in the Mathru community.  And that friendship is best encompassed by the word “brother.”

The next morning I was awoken not by our usual delivery of boiled milk, but rather by multiple students of the Mathru School yelling “Amal brother” at our window.  Getting up to talk to them, it turned out they wanted to know two things: a) why we were moving our residence away from the school, and b) whether I wanted to go to the park with them.

Over the next few weeks I had ample opportunities to interact with the students in non-academic settings: when they were sitting in the lunchroom waiting for food to be served, when they were going between classes or running errands for teachers, when they were gathered at school assemblies.  I was immediately their “brother” (these were 7th-10th Standard students,)  and all they wanted to do was talk.  They had infinite questions about America: what the weather was like, if there were poor people there, how much taxi drivers got paid, what the currency looked like, etc.  I learned so much by talking to them, about their aspirations, local traditions from their hometowns, the Indian academic system, and places to see in Bangalore.  

I have such fond memories of the students.  Like when I left my pencil case in a classroom and went upstairs to get it, and they all surrounded me, wanting to introduce themselves and talk.  Or when I entered the seminar hall to watch student dances and dramas, and one student dragged me over to sit next to him.  Or when a student wore glasses with no power (they did not help his vision,) just because “you are my brother and you wear glasses so I will wear glasses too.”  Or when a group of students were so excited to talk to me and take pictures with me that they completely forgot to go to class! (Never again will I let that happen 🙂 .)  

This brotherly relationship is not only limited to the students.  Many of the teachers and staff at the school have gone from being ____ Sir to ____ Bhaiyya (brother,) and I have become Amal Bhaiyya for them as well.  It is great to be able to talk to them during their break periods, to learn from their life experiences and share mine.  In fact, that has become my main way of relaxing during the day: heading down to the computer lab to converse with teachers.  After the second week, a teacher said to me that he really liked sitting down and talking so freely with someone, and wanted our conversations to continue to be just as open and uninhibited as they were.

Indian culture has a way of family-izing people.  What starts as adding familial relations to someone’s name as a way of showing respect ends up drawing them closer, removing the barriers of formality.  And I am in a unique position in the school, where I can be a brother to both the teachers and the students.  

I wasn’t able to go to the park with the students on the Saturday of Week 1.  However, I won’t make that mistake again.  This past Saturday, Erik and I went to the park with the students and had an absolute blast playing with them.  The students were overjoyed to see us, and we loved playing basketball and catch with them.  From now on, I will make it a point to spend time with students on the Saturdays that we go to work.

IMG_8637The students walking back from the park on Saturday

When I came here, I expected work and travel to be the most important, and most enjoyable, parts of the internship.  I didn’t imagine relationships with the community to play such a big role in my experience.  But now it seems like that will be the most lasting part of the internship I will bring back with me.  

I have made so many new siblings in Bangalore, and I look forward to 5 more weeks with all of them!

They Say ‘Expect the Unexpected’

By week 3 we had thought we settled into a groove in our work. When we arrived in Bangalore we were trying to make sense of how our research goals and projects would be translated into daily and weekly schedules and explained across the language barrier. This was all happening as we simultaneously tried to figure out how to even live in this foreign city when so much of our capacity to do things depends on the help of our community partners. But by week 3 we could independently go grocery shopping and cook our own meals, and our biggest and most uncertain questions about our work, like ‘How are we going to go about observing classes and talking to teachers?’ seemed to have been resolved.

Or so we thought.

We had been given a timetable of braille classes to observe each week, based on the schedules of the teachers that our community partner had selected for us. Amal and I arrived at our scheduled Tuesday classroom observation with an armful of braille tutors, just as we had the week before. The teacher seemed somewhat surprised at our presence, hesitated, and said that she needed to ask for permission first from the principal (the same thing had happened last week, but we thought maybe she had forgotten the schedule). We followed her to the principal’s office in confusion. When we arrived he smiled at us, gesturing to her that it was fine, and told her she should teach braille and use our braille tutors this period. Through Hindi, Amal learned that this wasn’t her braille class; in fact, this year she isn’t teaching braille to this grade at all.

All of a sudden, we realize that last week she had only being teaching braille to show us, and this was not the school’s actual timetable. In fact, none of the teachers in the timetable given to us taught braille when the timetable indicated they would. Few even were scheduled to teach braille this year at all.

I began to wonder, have I just not been paying enough attention?

The principal turns to us and reassuringly says he will change the timetable so she is teaching braille at this hour. I insist that’s not necessary, we do not want them to accommodate us. After all, we are trying to understand how teachers decide to adopt the braille tutors and in what ways they use them. He says it is no problem; he will change the timetable. I try to explain that we really do not want them to accommodate us. Following an artificial timetable where teachers are required to use the braille tutor for our viewing could not, by definition, help us understand how the school chooses to organically use or not use the tutors.

At that moment another teacher, who has been heavily involved in the braille tutor projects over the years, happened to be nearby and the principal calls her in. The principal and the two teachers begin to converse and negotiate in Kannada, and again, the principal turns to us and say he will be changing the timetable. At this point my head-nods and hand-waving (local gestures I have adopted to try to communicate that things are too much or not necessary) is frantic, I reiterate that we are trying to understand how teachers will choose to use the braille tutor. If the teachers are not teaching braille or they do not think it makes sense to use them in class, they shouldn’t use them. He looks at us, pleadingly, that it is easy for him to change the timetable and everything would be fine.

The teachers and the principal erupt into conversation in Kannada again, and one teacher brings up the afternoon extra braille practice session for weaker students. “They can use the braille tutor then. Are you free at 3:30 PM?” they ask.

I begin to suspect that this is, again, a way to please us. I exclaim that we are trying to see how they will use the braille tutors as if we are not here. If we had simply dropped off the additional braille tutors and not stayed for the summer, how would they have chosen to use them? They should decide if and how the braille tutors would be useful for that extra practice session. The one teacher pipes up, “Even if others are not using, I will be very happy to use all of them!”

This conversation had been going on for a solid 15 minutes now, and we all became aware of how this was cutting into precious class time. We wrap up to say that the teacher we had planned to observe should not teach braille now. Instead, we requested a schedule of all of the actual braille classes being taught and by whom. I left feeling somewhat defeated; there was still a lot of clarification that needed to happen and I wasn’t sure how to make myself any clearer.

Later that day I met with the one teacher who had been involved in the braille tutor project over the years. I apologized to her for the confusion, and tried to again clarify and establish common ground about what we’re trying to learn through this project. She understood me, though told me that, “Of course we should accommodate you. You’re here to help us.” I responded that by allowing us to observe their classes, generously giving time during their prep periods to talk with us, and providing opinions and feedback, they have done more than enough to meet us halfway.

I asked her how we might be able to convey our goals to the principal and the other teachers, and she said she would “consult with him. He can speak to the others.” She also suggested that we host a teacher training for the braille tutors, since few teachers actually know what the braille tutors offer. In the past the school has only had two braille tutors, and only one set of speakers. Thus, not many teachers were interested in using them in their classrooms because of their limited availability. She was willing help set up the training, and lead it. She was confident that other teachers would see the value once they tried it and learned about it. I felt more at ease; the school and the teachers were reclaiming more ownership of how the braille tutors could be used.

The training with the teachers happened this past Saturday, and while not all teachers were able to attend, those who did gained a lot out of it. Each of us worked with each teacher one-on-one to review the braille tutor, answering their questions and encouraging the teachers to explore the different modes. A new teacher who teaches multiple classes of braille was incredibly enthused. He mentioned that as he is blind and had a difficult time learning braille, he wishes this could have been available to him as a kid. Another teacher, who is sighted and both new to the school and to learning braille, took it home for the weekend to help her study the alphabet: “It’s very important for me to learn this, I have a difficult time grading my students’ homeworks if I am not strong in Braille.” Multiple teachers provided suggestions on what new modes and games they wanted to see added for their students. For the first time in our past three weeks, I felt like all of the teachers were genuinely excited, engaging with the tutor out of a personal desire, and weren’t simply trying to please us. After playing with the tutors they had began to think of it on their own terms.

Fieldwork has a way of always keeping you on your toes. It’s the part I find most exciting but also the most exhausting. No matter how many times someone tells me to expect the unexpected, when it happens I still find myself grasping. In the back of my mind I’m always constructing timelines: We’ve got 6 weeks left so that means by the end of next week we’ll be here, so that in two weeks we can start this, and so that means today I need to…. And so on. In most of my endeavors it keeps me in check and on track. But the reality of fieldwork is that you can only be so prepared, and the rest of the time you accept being humbled by how things are perceived differently or change course, and you adapt.

Moving forward, I think we’ve actually become closer to our ideals of participatory research and community empowerment, and it took being shaken up a little by the realities of fieldwork to get there. As someone who was drawn to iSTEP and TechBridgeWorld’s work specifically for those ideals, it reminds me that these words are empty if they aren’t being constantly reassessed. What seems like a setback is actually a space to reevaluate and grow, as individuals and as researchers working with underserved communities.

Here’s to embracing the unexpected in the coming 6 weeks!