Two Women, One Vision – Independent Inclusive Education

Technology

Interview with Tactopus Founders for White Print

Ayushi Shah

Like most impactful companies, Tactopus too had humble beginnings. Co-founded by Chandni Rajendran and Saloni Mehta, designers from IIT Bombay, the company specialises in creating multi-sensory and engaging learning experiences for children with vision loss and learning disabilities.

Their story began when Chandni did a summer internship at Xaviers’ Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) under the mentorship of Sam Taraporewala and Neha Trivedi. There, she came across tactile graphics and instantly realized that the experience of reading these graphics could be substantially enhanced by the use of technology. A few months later, Saloni, with her own experience in social impact work came on board, and together they started a company to focus on multi-sensory resources for early learning needs.  Together, they have been tirelessly working on the design, technology, and development of a new interactive tactile learning system.

For this month’s issue, White Print sits down with the founders of this innovative startup and talks to them about the power of design, the impact of their products and the importance of inclusive education.

Tactopus focuses on independent learning for children with vision loss, which is the need of the hour. Can you tell us about your product line and the technology behind it?

We have already launched a range of products that to cater to tactile learning needs of children with vision loss and another set of interactive books and games is in the pipeline.

To make the most out of each reading experience, three components are essential:

1) Tactile Component – The Tactopus books, cards, board games etc. that have tactile images. Users can physically run their fingers through this

2) Mobile App- Free to download from the Playstore, the app’s appropriate audio cues correspond exactly to the tactile component that the child is currently playing with. This guides the child and helps him/her learn independently.

3) Tactopus Stand –The stand holds the mobile phone in a perfect position that ensures that the experience is seamless.

What were the challenges you faced while designing the product?

One of the challenges we face is the complexity of content development for this novel medium of interaction. Every concept requires us to strip it down to the basics, reconsider the pedagogy used for sighted people, and reinvent it in a way that best suits the tactile material and the interactive voice companion. As professionally rewarding working on this challenge is, there is no shortcut around this. As we are aiming for the highest quality of interactive learning, there are a lot of steps involved. The experience needs to be engaging and intuitive enough for blind toddlers to find it interesting and learn on their own, and we are striving to make that happen with every product we launch. What helps is the edge that our team has – the multi-disciplinary approach and our always-open-to-collaborate attitude, which makes us seek feedback and opinions from all stakeholders at every stage of the design and development.

What was the research and testing process you undertake?

Our work is constantly informed by the needs of special educators, parents, and of course, the interests and needs of the children with vision loss themselves. Each product is aligned to a specific learning outcome. We go through multiple iterations of prototyping and field testing to ensure that the released products are of the best quality.

Your products are universally designed, which means – anyone can use them (helpful for children with learning disabilities as well). Can you tell us a little more about the design aspect?

One of the more gratifying things about our work is when we see the sighted children who are equally excited about our books. They’re fairly used to on-screen tech but the interactions on tangible material is still a novel concept for them. Since inclusion is as strong a focus for us as access, we are also focusing on promoting these books to inclusive/integrated schools. It’s important that we erase the differences between “mainstream” and “special education” needs, and focus on equal access for everybody. We’re planning reading events and play-days for children with or without disabilities to demonstrate how playful learning can be a strong social connector when done with the right resources and open minds.

Tell us about the feedback you’ve received from your current users.

It is always rewarding to hear the impact our work has had on kids and adults alike. It is what keeps us going when the days get hard. Like, 26-year-oldwith congenital blindness who works as a pan-India social media marketing manager. Until a year ago, he had never had access to a map. When Tactopus made an India political map and a state map for him in an audio-tactile format, he was able to better understand geographies and correlate that information with his work.

Or, the12-year-old Visalakshi who was born blind and has mild cerebral palsy. Most blind school teachers were not equipped to educate her as she cannot talk. Her aunt heard about Tactopus and bought her our books on animals and counting. Visalakshi would normally not readily explore tactile graphics, and would usually need a lot of assistance from her mother. When we made the Tactopus audio assistant play her favourite nursery rhymes to go with different animal tactile graphs, she opened up and began exploring the pictures with her fingertips. Overjoyed, her parents reached out to us and expressed their wish to buy more Tactopus books.

From parents and teachers, we take constant feedback, which helps us focus our resources to areas where they need assistance most. The problem is that there has been no significant development in digital products for blind children, and that difference puts blind children at a huge disadvantage. We hope to change this through Tactopus.

Awards and recognitions received so far?

We are so grateful for the support and the recognition our journey has received so far. Some of the awards we have received so far include the Young Innovator Award from Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, the NIDHI Prayas Grant for prototyping from Department of Science and Technology, Inclusive Innovation Award by Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce. We were humbled by the Zone Startups Equity-free Seed Fund that helped us immensely with our R&D.

What does a typical day in the office look like for both of you’ll?

We make it a point to spend half our Monday on a ‘Founder’s Meeting’. Here the two of us discuss strategyand update eachother about the different verticals we each handle.The meeting is immensely important as it helps us stay in the loop of each other’s work and lay the agenda for the week(s) ahead. The rest of the week, Saloni works with the manufacturing, sales, operations, communications and marketing teams. On the other hand, I (Chandni) work with the product team alongside the software developers and designers. We are a dynamic team with lots of energy and it always helps that everybody enjoys their work and finds it meaningful.

What is your core vision of Tactopus?

Tactopus as a company exists to address the disparity in access to educational resources for children with vision loss. We envision a future where accessible options for toys, entertainment and, learning resources are easily available on the shelves of mainstream stores. A parent of a blind child, or a child with developmental delays should have a wide choice of learning material. We feel that this choice is necessary in order to foster inclusion and equal access to education.

What keeps you going when the days get difficult?

The faces, smiles, laughter, and curious questions of all the little kids who have used our books. When we remember how much of a difference our work makes to children with vision loss, it’s a huge motivation to keep at it.

In your TedX talk, you spoke about how sometimes it is important to not be the smartest person in the room. Only then can you learn and grow from people who are better. Can you elaborate on this learning or share an incident?

Studies have repeatedly shown that diversity increases a team’s ability to innovate and work better. It’s not just about learning from people who are smarter or more experienced than you, but about opening up to people of diverse backgrounds and abilities. Being in an inclusive, diverse setting is one of the best things one can do for their own careers.

What is the next range of products you are working on for Tactopus?

A relatively huge range of interactive books and games is in the pipeline. In the near future; games that enable a child to independently practice basic numbers and mathematical operations are releasing soon!

We are open to content suggestions. If you think we should work on a particular topic, please write to us at hello@tactopus.com

How and where can people buy your products?

Our products are available on our website at tactopus.com/store. You can also reach us at hello@tactopus.com

About the Author – Ayushi Shah is a part time dreamer and a full time writer. If she isn’t travelling, she is usually touring the world through the pages of her books.  

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