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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