BleeTV: Leveraging sign language and digital technology to empower the deaf

How many people can capitalise on a failed initiative? That too in a field neglected by policymakers, entrepreneurs, and the society at large? When a smartwear for the deaf didn’t take off, the 20-something founders of Bleetech Innovations, Janhavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar, saw an even smarter way to help the community.

The Blee watch could have been a master stroke. Hooked up to the smartphone, the band was designed to convert familiar sounds into signals for the hearing-impaired, making them more independent and confident. But, it paved the way for the BleeTV app that addressed the two prime concerns of the deaf community — lack of access to communication and lack of content — through sign language videos.

BleeTV came to the aid of the very people who were left out of the information revolution. “Since deafness is an invisible disability, the needs of the nearly 18-million deaf population in India never assumed centre stage. The general perception is that hearing devices is the panacea to all their problems,” says Pune-based Janhavi who met Nupura when they enrolled for an industrial design course at MIT, Pune.

From Ask Blee to BleeTV

Nowhere is the need for communication more apparent than among the deaf for whom auditory loss has been the biggest impediment to learning a spoken or written language. So, while the rest of the world made use of technology to acquire knowledge and improve their lives, a deaf person was still struggling to google answers, let alone find employment. Janhavi and Nupura spotted this vacuum when they launched Ask Blee in July, 2017, as a marketing initiative for the Blee watch. “We invited the hearing impaired to ask questions through Facebook and WhatsApp and responded in sign language videos. The queries ranged from who was Mahatma Gandhi to dating tips to RBI policies to calls for help with homework. In less than a year, the growth was exponential,” says Janhavi, who realized that the deaf community needed a dedicated space to articulate their needs. By the time BleeTV was launched exactly a year later, the company had a database of 5,000 people.

Taking a cue from the demands, BleeTV set out to make and curate videos for the youth, teaching them among other things, the basics of finance, banking and English language, equipping them for job interviews, giving them a lowdown on news and entertainment and helping them to carry out basic tasks like drawing money from the ATM. It also became a platform for other content providers addressing the deaf community. In July 2019, BleeTV turned into a paid app as it improved the content for its subscribers.

Blee Tablet

Around the same time, Janhavi and Nupura also started making pilots for the schoolchildren in Pune. “Here too the response was very encouraging. The students took to sign language almost immediately. They became more involved in their studies and started asking questions,” says Janhavi. In June, 2019, the duo launched a tablet-based digital library for 7 schools in Pune, equipped to track performance-oriented milestones. There was also a module on teacher-training since many of them expressed willingness to learn sign language.

What seemed an obvious move for the company was, in fact, a radical step because in India, believe it or not, only a handful of special schools imparted lessons through sign language. Oralism and speech therapy taught in most such schools weren’t suitable for all the students. The first attempt at formalizing a sign language was undertaken in 2000 as training began to be imparted in Indian Sign Language (ISL). Thanks to the New Education Policy, the focus has now shifted to ISL with efforts being undertaken to standardize it, enrich the vocabulary and create content for school curriculum.

Had it not been for the pandemic, the Blee tablet would have been introduced to another 25 schools in Maharashtra. But the stay-at-home phase did open up new possibilities for the startup with the introduction of the remote-learning kit comprising physical workbooks and stationery. The QR code on the workbooks gives the children access to digital libraries. “Students from 65 schools are now using this kit,” says Janhavi who was aware that a long gap in the learning process could reverse the gains in cognitive development. “The content that was earlier available only on the tablet can now be accessed through mobile phones,” she says.

With hindsight, Janhavi feels that the initial failure taught the founders a different sense of value. “During the days of the Blee watch, the company was all about the product. Now it is all about the value and impact it is creating in the lives of thousands of people,” she says.

Things have begun looking up for the hearing-impaired, she feels, with the increasing acceptance of the ISL among parents and teachers. “This has come about from the realization that sign language is the first language for the deaf child; it is his window to the outside world and that he has the right to get access to it at an early age. Once the NEP is implemented, the community will benefit from the practical changes on the ground. With rising awareness, there is now a possibility that deaf schools can have deaf educators because these people are best equipped to teach these special kids,” says Janhavi.

Social Alpha’s Role

“When Social Alpha (SA) began working with Bleetech four years ago, we became closely involved with the design, production, and promotion of the watch. It was our second investment in the Assistive Technology (AT) space,” says Pulkit Aggarwal, leading the AT vertical at Social Alpha. The startup was trying to solve a huge problem by helping people with speech and hearing impairment live an independent life, which would augment their scope for education and employment.

Early on, SA was impressed by the fact that Janhavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar weren’t shy of pivoting for the larger cause. “When the duo realized that the device wouldn’t work out for various reasons, they switched to a service-oriented approach that was BleeTV. Their dedication and hard work has brought in all the prestigious awards in the AT sector, including Mphasis Universal Design Award; the Magnetic Startup Award; Enable Makeathon: Ideation to Impact; and Nipman Foundation-Microsoft: Equal Opportunity Award,” he says.

Though several NGOs were already working in the speech and hearing disability space, Bleetech has emerged as a leader in a short time, even attracting investors, says Pulkit. Blee was one of the first companies in the AT sector focusing on mobilising the country towards the common goal of education for persons with hearing impairment. Such was the company’s stature that when the founders shifted to making videos, several startups followed suit, he says.

Road ahead

The rapidly evolving deaf education sector is an ideal opportunity for Bleetech, which has been consistently providing quality content. “The current focus is to reach out to as many deaf kids and teachers as possible by leveraging ISL and digital technology, the two most important tools for our pan-India outreach programme. The BleeTV library is doing just that. This year we are concentrating on Maharashtra, which has one of the highest concentrations of such schools in the country. Meanwhile, we have established our presence in Meghalaya and Karnataka. If we can promote ISL and the right pedagogical approach in these schools, it would significantly improve the lives of the children,” she says.

The scale-up model is consistent with the larger vision of Bleetech. “In five years, we would like the company to become the go-to centre for the stakeholders, including the deaf children, their parents, special educators, counsellors, and policymakers, by covering about 70% of the deaf schools. The aim is to simplify the lives of not only the children but also of all those people around these kids,” says Janhavi.