Thiruvananthapuram: The participants of ‘Huddle Kerala’, the first-ever startup conclave of international scale hosted by Kerala’s capital city in April 2018, were awed by the distinct words of a deaf woman entrepreneur exuding confidence. “I have a dream. My aim is to educate and empower the deaf community through the use of innovative technology.” These words of Theertha Nirmal were welcomed with thunderous applause. And SignNEXT, which she co-founded with two others, was among the three startups shortlisted by investors and industry leaders for funding, at the conclave. Two months later, the same startup, which is incubated by the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM), also won accolades at the Global Impact Challenge (GIC) Summit held in Thiruvananthapuram.
These recognitions are a testimony to the determination of the 27-year-old, Kozhikode-based Theertha, who sees a long road ahead in realising her dream.
Information Technology can be put to several uses; empowerment being a major one. Theertha Nirmal, who co-founded the startup SignNEXT, has a dream. She is committed to ensuring the dignity and enhancing the quality of life of hearing-impaired people like her through inclusive innovations
“The deaf community has been lagging behind and it is not easy for them to take part in conversations in their daily lives. Though I got admitted to a deaf school, it was difficult for me to comprehend what teachers taught me through verbal communication and object identification,” says Theertha, who is deaf since the age of 11 years.
Teachers at the school were also not well equipped to teach deaf students. Theertha mastered Sign Language only after she joined the National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) in Thiruvananthapuram for BSc Computer Science.
“As someone who struggled to communicate with the people, I understand the difficulties faced by deaf persons and I want them to be involved in mainstream conversations. SignNEXT aims at realising this goal,” says Theertha, who was working as a lab assistant at NISH before entering the startup domain.
WHAT IS SignNEXT?
SignNEXT Assistive Technology LLP is a social impact startup, a first-of-its kind committed to ensuring the dignity and enhancing the quality of life of deaf people through its inclusive innovations. The startup, through its higher academic and vocational training and awareness programmes, will prepare them for achieving a progressive transition in their lives.
“Our vision is to provide opportunity to every person belonging to the deaf community to achieve his/her fullest potential, and participate in and contribute to all aspects of life just like any other normal individuals,” said Kingsley David, one of the founders of SignNEXT.
Kingsley himself was raised by a deaf aunt and hence, it was easy for him to identify with the issues faced by deaf colleagues while working for a multinational company. This had prompted the setting up of SignNEXT, the startup incubated at Technopark. In 2016, Kingsley met Theertha through his colleague and Theertha’s spouse, Sanu Chukkiri. Theertha readily agreed to join Kingsley on his venture and Pravij Kumar also later joined them in taking the startup forward. Within one year they ideated on three projects, of which SignSKOOL, a mobile app and content-based product, won them awards at Huddle Kerala and GIC.
The idea of the mobile application was initially mooted by Kingsley in 2014. But it had to be dropped as mobile internet had only 2G network capability which made continuous video streaming a bit difficult. However, Kingsley was advised that the app would work better only in 3G network.
The mobile app will help teach students English sign language using animated videos featuring titles, sub-titles and graphics. This will give them better understanding of the content they are being taught. The app, to be released by October, will also have the facility to live telecast sessions led by experts.
“The products of SignNEXT, including the app, will focus on providing education, skill and knowledge lessons and programmes using sign language for the profoundly deaf users in India, the population of which comes to around 1.8 crore while it is 3.5 lakh in Kerala,” says Pravij Kumar. Theertha will be the key person in taking forward the mobile application.
“For me it was important to have a deaf woman to lead the company which, in turn, will inspire many deaf women in India to come forward and engage themselves in creating opportunities for them and their community,” adds Kingsley.
Our platform will act as a single point for accessing critical information, learning, skill and knowledge-enhancement programs and healthcare. We will provide all this through sign language-based programs,” says Theertha. The app can be downloaded free of cost.
SignNext is also planning to create high quality engaging modules for teaching sign language and English in around 500 schools for the deaf and 1000-odd special and vocational schools in India, which presently lack sign language support facilities.
SignNEXT is also one among the first cohort of startups selected for the prestigious Zone Startups Accelerator Program.
SignNEXT also has plans to bring out pre-loaded Tablets meant for those who may not have internet and electricity accessibility. A few outfits have come forward to sponsor distributing these Tablets among children and adults in remote locations and villages. As part of educating people on how to use the Tablet, navigation of various screens will be released prior to the launch in sign language to help the not so tech-savvy. “Our primary goal is to make our platform available to all the deaf schools in Kerala, especially government deaf and special education schools and colleges in the State,” Theertha says.
PARTICIPATION IN HUDDLE & GIC
“It was absolutely thrilling and gave us huge opportunity to showcase our pitch and mission. I am happy that I could successfully convey to the dignitaries and the audience the real problems being faced by the deaf community, especially deaf women in India,” says Theertha. Both Kingsley and Theertha stated how the awards and recognitions gave them the much-needed visibility. “The media, by featuring us in the most engaging and meaningful manner, gave us great support. Most importantly, we were able to interact with top leaders, CEOs, mentors and stakeholders, and build contacts which could help further our cause,” they said.
ROLE OF FAMILY
“My parents and husband are the strong pillars of support and the reason why I am here with an important and huge responsibility,” she says. My parents’ constant support and encouragement helped me come out with flying colours from NISH.
She also points out the unconditional support provided by her husband by ensuring that she got enough time to gain knowledge, attend training sessions and get empowered to fulfil her dream. The couple also has a one-year-old daughter.
PROJECTS IN PIPELINE
SignNEXT has now finalised plans to launch a project for the hearing impaired women in Kerala to help them set up Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to achieve financial growth. Discussions in this regard with Kerala State Social Justice Department, Krishi Bhavans, Commissionerate for Persons with Disabilities and Kerala State Handicapped Persons Welfare Corporation are in progress. The project, a first in the country, is meant for providing information to deaf persons on how to start SMEs, which will be initially limited to the organic farming sector.
“Our vision is to provide opportunity to every person belonging to the deaf community to achieve his/her fullest potential, and participate in and contribute to all aspects of life just like any other normal individual.”
– Kingsley David, Co-founder,
SignNEXT Assistive Technology LLP
But Theertha’s dream does not end here. “In 10 years, I want to lead a company with as many fellow deaf people as possible to empower deaf communities even in the remotest parts of our country. It is challenging but we are sure that we will be able to achieve this with the right kind of support and funding,” says a confident Theertha.
The company, which recently received seed funding from KSUM, is now looking for crowdfunding options.
SignNEXT’S ROLE IN EMPOWERING WOMEN
Theertha has always stood for the cause of women’s empowerment, especially that of deaf women. “Our empowerment programmes help deaf girls and women to shape their future and speed up their progress. By assisting them in improving their literacy, technical and social skills, we are also aiming at improving their self-confidence,” says the bold woman entrepreneur.
Many deaf women in India are illiterate and they lack the opportunities to learn and develop fundamental skills. SignNEXT will enhance their knowledge and skills through educational, vocational and awareness programmes. Teaching them about basic personal hygiene, pregnancy and motherhood will again help them become confident.
“Our projects help increase opportunities for deaf women. We provide networking opportunities, mentoring, access to information and business management training. We also assist deaf women in fostering their environment where they can advocate for improved policies,” she adds.
SignNEXT has been working closely with a few communities of deaf persons in Thiruvananthapuram and other parts of Kerala. They have been actively involved in the development of programs along with the Government Deaf School in Thiruvananthapuram. The startup gathers feedback from students by showing them demo videos, mock screenshots and navigation. This is for ensuring a more user-friendly experience for their mobile app.