It is hard to believe, but true. Three Chennai students with autism Prem, Pranav Sridhar and Saravana Raj have designed India's first accessible website for COVID-19 data to help the visually challenged community access crucial COVID information. On their site www.hashackcode.com/covid-19 they simplify complex government data from state governments and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) often in the form of graphics, charts or pictures into accessible HTML form so that screen readers used by the visually impaired can read it. Normally, screen readers do not read data or information in such forms and visually challenge cannot access that.
21-year-old Pranav Sridhar an autistic student doing his visual communication has now turned into an accessible web developer. He loves the cause and works independently on his laptop. He says: "We live in an era where everything is online and digital. I want to help visually impaired people and neurodiverse individuals so that they can understand the real world as well as the digital world".
It was the brainchild of a techie social entrepreneur Manu Sekar who taught them web designing and coding at his academy initially and later remotely since the pandemic hit.
This is perhaps the first time a neurodiverse group has successfully developed a solution for another differently abled group. Explaining the need to skill neurodiverse groups including the autistic, Manu the Founder and CEO of HashHackCode says: "These people are shunned for most opportunities. They are always pushed towards low skilled jobs. This proves them all wrong that they are capable individuals and they solve real-world problems".
At Chennai's Valmiki Nagar, 25-year-old Prem Shankar, another autistic student updates Covid data on his laptop assisted by his mother Mangai Alwarappan. He meticulously copies from government websites. He has also designed celebration websites for weddings and has earned Rs. 7,000, so far. His mother had quit her job and learnt coding along with Prem so that she could guide him. She says
"Prem's sitting tolerance has improved. Earlier he couldn't sit beyond 10-20 minutes. Now he is able to work on his computer for an hour. He does not make any mistakes. His entry is so perfect. We are happy". His new IT (Information Technology) skills with the potential to earn have come as an inspiration to the family. His father Alwarappan added "Earlier we were worried. Now there is a little bit of ray of hope is there. He is earning now."
The experiment seen largely successful has roped in mothers as teammates, so over a period, each mother would be able to take wings and lead a group of individuals with autism besides helping her child scale new heights.
Deepa Satish, the mother of Saravana Raj the third member of the team had shifted base from Tuticorin to Chennai to help her son get skilled. She is quite happy. She says "We have done it and we have proved that these children also can do websites and learn more and more of HTML and CSS coding."
The mothers are now raising awareness among IT companies, media digital platforms and corporates to earmark openings for skilled autistic persons. Roopa Sridhar, Pranav's mother says, "That is definitely the way looking forward for them. We are looking at a lot of options in the IT field".
The visually challenged welcome the accessible website the trio has developed.
In another part of Chennai, Selvamani a visually challenged IAS aspirant finds the site useful to update himself on COVID data every day at Nethrodaya, a centre for the visually challenged. He said, "It's like a one-stop-shop for COVID data. I am able to access information which I could not earlier".
C Govindakrishnan, Founder of Nethrodaya added "We are absolutely self-reliant, this website has given lots of impetus, edified our confidence to a different level.”