Aurora Magazine

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Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Playing their part in promoting inclusivity

Three start-ups that are trying to make a difference in the lives of people with special needs.

In our society, people with special needs continue to be treated in a manner that leaves much to be desired. Most commercial buildings lack wheelchair ramps, and worse still, they have to face condescending attitudes from the people they are surrounded by. Needless to say, the state of affairs is dismal. Yet, there is hope, thanks to a handful of young entrepreneurs who have focused their energies on providing people with special needs with a better life. From start-ups working on sign language interpretation to those developing games to aid learning, these ‘dreamers’ are playing an active role in making Pakistan a more inclusive place.

A case in point is ConnectHear, a Karachi-based social start-up which was established in January 2018. The start-up is working towards bridging the gap between the hearing-impaired and those of us lucky enough to hear. With a team of full-time and part-time translators, ConnectHear hopes to become the go-to portal for Pakistani sign language services. Currently, they have two major offerings: video sign language interpretation using WhatsApp/Skype and in-person interpretation. They are now working on developing a software which converts audio into sign language.

According to Azima Dhanjee, CEO, ConnectHear, “tech-wise, our focus at the moment is to develop a call centre that can streamline our video interpretation services and integrate them with the customer service centres of major banks and companies.”

As far as the sign language-to-audio conversion software is concerned, Dhanjee says that it will take time, as there are several challenges that have to be overcome. “Given that sign language is about body gestures, facial expressions and tone, it is incredibly hard to develop the technology and it has not been developed overseas either.”

Although there is a social cause at the core of the initiative, ConnectHear is not a non-profit organisation and their revenue streams include a monthly subscription for people who want to take advantage of their video interpretation services full-time and a fee for those who want it part-time. They also generate funds by organising sign language classes and special events, as well as via grants and competitions.

The idea for ConnectHear emerged from the fact that Dhanjee’s parents are hearing- impaired. “I kept waiting for an initiative that would help improve the lives of people like my parents, but nothing did. It was during the second semester of my entrepreneurial class that I started working on a business model and that is how ConnectHear took shape on paper. Soon, we were incubated at the Nest I/O.”

ConnectHear has made active efforts in making social spaces more inclusive for the hearing-impaired. In April this year, they made it possible for about 300 hearing-impaired individuals to attend a Strings concert. “Our interpreters were on stage, conducting live translations and we used special lighting and vibrations to create an environment where they could feel the music.”

Another start-up that aims to improve the lives of people is WonderTree, which was established in 2016 and focuses on teaching children with special needs. They have developed a series of games that use augmented reality (AR); the games speed up the learning process among these children and enhance their functional, motor and cognition skills.

How does it work? A kinect sensor, a computer and a TV screen serve as hardware, and the games are played on the WonderTree system. Each student creates his/her profile, and their progress is tracked as they play the games, which require them to ‘catch’ balls in a bucket or trace letters through AR.

WonderTree too has a subscription-based model. In its early days, the start-up used to charge Rs 3,000 a month per user, but after realising that this was too high, the fees was reduced by half. Two years ago, the start-up was struggling financially, so much so that they were unable to pay the salaries of their handful of employees.

Although winning several competitions and securing funds from Samsung helped them stay afloat to a large extent, things finally settled down in December last year when Ignite – the National ICT and Research Fund – stepped in, providing them Rs 27.3 million.  

“This should last us until May next year,” says Muhammed Waqas, CEO, WonderTree. “We broke even last year and this year’s projections estimate a green bottom-line.”

With money in their pockets and a name they have built over the past few years, the start-up is picking up. Since July, they have increased the number of users from 300 to 1,000 through partnerships with four hospitals and more are expected to come onboard soon. The team has also grown from five members (many of whom were interns) to 12, all of whom are on the payroll.

In Islamabad, a start-up that offers e-learning solutions to kindergarten and primary school students is Qalum Guru; it was established recently and they claim to have a complete learning management system that digitises classrooms. They do so with their teaching system (which includes video lectures and assessments designed by a team of psychologists and content creators), which also allows teachers to assess their students’ capabilities, track their progress and perhaps most importantly, identify if a child is suffering from a learning disability. Once a student is believed to have a learning disability, he/she is referred to an in-house counselor who then addresses their weaknesses.

However, unlike ConnectHear and WonderTree, Qalum Guru does not have a definite revenue model and are struggling to work out an exact costing structure. “We approached a few schools to implement our system but they weren’t ready to pay even nominal charges,” says Hassan Tanvir, COO, Qalam Guru.

Then how are they even surviving? “In March last year, we raised Rs 12.75 million in seed money from Ignite and this helped us set up our system in a couple of schools, but we had to do it for free,” says Tanvir. Unfortunately, the start-up has exhausted the grant and Tanvir is looking for funding to keep Qalum Guru running.

Unfortunately, when the State fails to do its job, the onus of responsibility falls on each one of us. And it is encouraging to see that these entrepreneurs are playing their part, despite facing financial difficulties.

Mutaher Khan is a member of the Dawn editorial staff. m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com