With a week leading upto the international day of persons with disabilities, we sat down to reflect on our journey so far and our plans going forward. There was one constant in everything we discussed, and that was our amazing community (people with disabilities, volunteers, academic partners, corporate partners among others)-that is all of you. And so, we found it to be only fitting to share our journey and plans for the future, while also reflecting on some key values that guide our work.
It was late 2017 when during a long discussion around access to STEM courses for the blind and visually impaired, a few of us realized that there continued to be significant challenges despite some advances in technology and policy changes. More awareness was needed, more support was required and more champions needed to get involved. With this in mind, we launched I-Stem, an organization to empower people with disabilities in STEM and STEM-based courses and careers. It has now been nearly three years, and we couldn't be prouder of what we have been able to accomplish. With a reach of over 1,200 students and professionals with disabilities in India and the US and a community of over 200 people with and without disabilities, we have together promoted STEM education and partnered with several like-minded stakeholders along the way.
With initiatives such as our three successful annual events alongwith our amazing partners featuring developers with and without disabilities coding together, technical training programs , fellowship program , internships and webinars etc., we have had the pleasure of working with amazing academic institutes and corporates, and several of our community members have been hired by some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, Shell etc.. Many more community members have secured certificates from prestigious universities such as Stanford, MIT among others, thanks to our student and corporate mentors. In other words, we have come a long way and are humbled by the impact we have been able to have especially in a field that was considered "impossible" for the blind only a few years ago. The "thank you" emails and messages from our community are the most satisfying and rewarding for us. Our outreach to and participation of people with other disabilities such as orthopedic disabilities and those who are deaf or hard of hearing this year has also been a great learning experience and has enriched our community further.
Despite this impact, we know that there is so much more that needs to be done. Many more universities need to be sensitized, many more students (including those who may not be pursuing a STEM course) need to be supported to help them realize their dream of becoming an engineer, a scientist or a lawyer, many more companies need to embrace the idea of an engineer with a disability, many more startups need to think about accessibility from day 1, and many more disabled people's organizations (DPOs) need to start embracing technology. Mainstream technology, on the other hand, needs to not only be a platform to solve accessibility-related problems, but instead, should capture the experiences of people with disabilities to ensure that it is truly inclusive. For instance, data used for training AI algorithms needs to include data from people with disabilities. The community has been forgotten for quite some time now, but we cannot let that happen again in this fast-paced technical era. And so, our advocacy programs, work with corporates and discussions within mainstream technical circles will continue, our community programs will continue, except that we now welcome non-Stem students and professionals to our community as well. join our community if you aren't already a member.
Additionally, in our discussions over the last few months, we have realized that technology can be a strong enabler as we do all of this. This is especially pertinent now as the entire world faces the challenges of Covid-19, and people with disabilities much more so. With inaccessible textbooks and digital content, and with universities around the world struggling to meet the needs of people with disabilities amidst these difficult times, it has become even more important to explore solutions to level the playing field especially in the education and employment sectors. Given this observation, we have been hard at work for the last several months exploring how latest advancements in AI can help. We're excited to share that we've made substantial progress and are excited to share this work with you for feedback and further development. Starting December3, we will start rolling out access to our portal in a phased manner that not only helps with document and audio/video accessibility (including some of the pain points that we as a community continued to face with existing solutions), but also brings all of our existing programs, content and resources together. Sign up for early access.
More broadly though, we at I-Stem will be focusing very heavily on technology going forward and leveraging it to improve and scale our existing programs, and we would like for you to join us on this journey . As people with disabilities ourselves having experienced several challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities on an equal basis, it's very important for us that every single line of code we write has a significant tangible impact on our community, and so we need you to tell us-tell us what is important to you, tell us what are the challenges you or your students/employees with disabilities continue to face, tell us how you think technology could help in your work including advocacy work. We're looking to you for support.