Imagine not being able to answer a work message because you missed the “ping” of your phone, or having to eat cold food because you don’t know when the microwave went off or worse being oblivious to the horn of a car that is about to to hit you. This escalation from dependency to fatality might seem the realm of nightmares, but for those with hearing disabilities this is pretty much their reality. While technology has enabled every kind of solution for modern life (most of which, can be accessed without requiring communication with other people) when it comes to catering to the same needs for the differently abled community, we are at the other end of the spectrum.
25 year-old Mumbai based industrial designers, Nupura Kirloskar and Janhavi Joshi sensed this very divide and today they are the founders of Blee — an organisation that serves the deaf community with their products and services.
It all began in 2015, while attending a dance performance by deaf children. It was there that they observed that the cues for the beats of the music was given to the kids by gestures made by their teacher — this jarred the performance experience for both the dancers and the audience. So when their college, MIT Pune’s curriculum demanded that they design a product for people with special needs, the duo who themselves are inclined towards the performing arts, decided on an ambitious goal — to make the deaf dance. “We observed that those who are deaf have the ability to recognise sounds through vibrations. They have an incredible sense of touch,” says Kirloskar who is an Indian classical singer herself. “So we worked on this phenomenon of hearing through touch, to make our product,” adds Joshi who is a trained Kathak dancer.
The result was, what is now the BleeWatch, a watch that empowers the deaf community through a variety of functions. It enables recording emergency sounds (doorbell, fire alarm, a baby’s cry) and notifies the reader whenever the sound is played again. Breaking the communication barrier, this watch allows the user to save and play sentences which they might need in certain situations. In case of emergencies, the device allows them to instantly contact their guardians or friends by sending out their current locations. One of the most unique aspects of the watch is that it helps them realise music without sound. So how do these simple and yet technically intricate processes work? Every kind of vibration has been associated with a certain colour code by the Blee team in their watch and is further linked to their app, which then helps the user decipher a particular sound. “Innovation is not about complexity but just joining the dots wisely to get the perfect picture,” explained Joshi, clearing our skepticism.
Arriving to the present design of the BleeWatch, consisted of hard work worth months for the two founders of Blee, including forfeiting both college internships and even placements. At first Kirloskar and Joshi had decided on a ring or a band as the design but after speaking to potential users they realised that the deaf community was reluctant to wear such devices. “Like the hearing aids they had, many of them associated our product as a marker of social stigma. So a watch, that blends with the accessories used by mainstream society became the perfect bet,” confesses Kirloskar who along with Joshi worked on several prototypes to make the BleeWatch.
Today apart from the BleeWatch, that after almost a three-year long wait, will be released in the commercial markets soon, Blee Tech also offers other services. One of them — AskBlee is a Whatsapp number on which people from the deaf community can ask any questions they have, ranging from general knowledge to politics. The Blee team will then answer them through a video made in sign language. “At present the education available to the deaf community is very low, there are no alternatives present for imparting knowledge other than audio-visual mediums,” laments Kirloskar who currently receives questions from 15 states in India and other countries like the Philippines on AskBlee.
“Though we noticed that most of our customer queries were related to a lack of vocabulary,” said Joshi. So to address the issue on a larger scale they began BleeTV , a Youtube channel that focuses on vocabulary building through stories told in sign language. The content ranges from videos titled — ‘How To Impress A Girl’ to ‘What is GST’ and even some inspirational talks. “We also plan to create and produce political, banking and e-commerce related content, spheres in which the deaf community needs the most knowledge,” says Kirloskar explaining their attempts to reduce communication barriers for the differently abled community.
Along with the happiness of forging such incredible initiatives, comes struggle that needs strong faith to overcome. Though Blee hires deaf professionals as per their inclusive company policy, one of the biggest challenges that they face is the need for more man power, to expand their operations. “We can’t just hire anybody. We need individuals who are passionate about helping the differently abled community and sensitive towards their needs,” says Joshi who along with Kirloskar is also working on reducing the cost of production for the BleeWatch. Still for Blee Tech that has had representation in Silicon Valley, and been part of the Indo-USA Startup Connect along with receiving many prestigious awards, inspiration is much closer than for most others. “We never planned to start a company of our own,” confesses Kirloskar, “But looking at the sheer trust and affection our customers have for us, we knew this had to be our path. Their smiles are what pushes us each day.”
In a world driven by consumerism, companies like Blee that bring entrepreneurship with social impact are few if not rare. With a belief that as thinkers and innovators we have a responsibility towards enabling those on the fringes of society to be able to assimilate in the mainstream, Blee is truly an inspiration for professionals across the world.
To know more about Blee you can visit their website here.
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