> Kartik Sawhney
Kartik Sawhney’s story is not defined by limitations but by breaking barriers and forging new paths. Growing up in the crowded Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood in Delhi, Kartik was diagnosed with an illness that left him permanently blind shortly after his birth. With a fervor to learn new things and the support of his family, who introduced him to computers for education, Kartik learned to think of himself not as a blind boy but as a student.
His early fascination with technology drove him to explore how computers might adapt schoolwork to his disability. But when it came time for Kartik to pursue science and engineering, he encountered resistance. He was told that blind students were prohibited from the science tract in India. Undeterred, Kartik began a nine-month campaign for the right to study, and today, thanks to his efforts, every student in India has the right to pursue the studies they want, regardless of visual impairment.
This determination didn’t stop with his education in India. After a three-year battle to make an entrance exam at one of India’s prestigious technology institutes accessible to blind students, Kartik turned his sights abroad. In 2013, he applied to several schools and secured a scholarship to his top choice, Stanford University, a significant milestone that epitomised his resilience.
Kartik’s struggles were not in vain; they fueled his innovative spirit. Frustrated with visualising a calculus curve without sight, he developed software to represent graphs using sound frequencies. This ability to turn struggles into solutions propelled him forward in his mission to bridge the digital divide for people with disabilities.
His current innovations include I-Stem, a project in collaboration with the governments of India and the US, expanding access to accessible content for people with print disabilities. It’s now being used by thousands of people every day. He’s also worked on inclusive hackathons, bringing people with and without disabilities together, and mentorship initiatives like NextBillion.org.
The reach of Kartik’s initiatives is genuinely global, extending to over 12,000 people with disabilities in more than 10 countries. Collaborating with organisations like Microsoft, UNICEF, and the Roddenberry Foundation, Kartik’s leadership in the Global Network of Young Persons with Disabilities (GNYPWD) continues to influence and inspire.
His voice is not confined to technology alone; he’s become an influential speaker and writer, educating and sensitising the public about disability and accessibility. He’s addressed organisations and conferences from National Geographic to the UN General Assembly and written for entities such as UNICEF and Leonard Cheshire.
Recognition of his work has come in the form of awards such as the Queen’s Young Leader Award and the UN Young Leader’s Award and media coverage from Forbes to the Huffington Post. But for Kartik, the highlight has been his work to help blind students in India pursue STEM and engineering—something that was previously not possible.
Kartik’s story is a testament to innovation, perseverance, and leadership. From his early struggles with education to his global impact through technology and advocacy, he continues to challenge barriers and create opportunities for persons with disabilities. His contributions provide insight into the power of determination and creativity to make meaningful changes, transforming personal challenges into global solutions.
> Nujeen Mustafa
Nujeen Mustafa’s story is not just one of survival but of unbreakable will, courage, and leadership. Born with cerebral palsy in Aleppo, Syria, Nujeen was confined to her apartment most of her life. Her confinement did not limit her spirit; she taught herself English by watching shows on TV, embracing a world beyond her physical boundaries.
When the war in Syria broke out, Nujeen’s life drastically changed. Forced to flee her home first to Kobane and then to Turkey, she faced the harsh realities of a refugee. The family’s financial constraints were such that Nujeen’s parents had to stay behind in Turkey, leaving the young girl to embark on a perilous 3,500-mile journey to Germany with her sister, all while in a steel wheelchair. Her destination was not just a place of safety but a beacon of hope and a promise of education.
The journey was filled with inconceivable odds, yet Nujeen’s optimism and defiance shone through, making her the human face of an increasingly dehumanised crisis. Her story transcended the narrative of struggle to become a testament to resilience, courage, and the unwavering belief in the possibility of a better life.
Upon arriving in Germany, Nujeen continued to share her story and became a powerful advocate for refugee youth. Her remarkable spirit captured hearts worldwide as she undertook media interviews and spoke at high-profile conferences. Whether addressing a UNHCR event at the Palais Des Nations in Geneva or international TEDx events in the UK and Iraq, her voice resonated with authenticity and conviction.
In 2019, Nujeen’s advocacy took her to the first-ever Global Refugee Forum, where she spoke about the importance of keeping children’s dreams alive. Appearing with Grover from the kids’ educational TV series Sesame Street, she also stressed the need for active involvement and meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all stages of the refugee response, declaring, “We are not asking this as a favour; this is our right.”
Nujeen’s leadership role in the Global Network of Young Persons with Disabilities (GNYPWD) amplifies her commitment to empowering others. Her influence extends beyond her own story, inspiring a generation to recognise their rights, embrace their potential, and to believe in the power of dreams.
Her story is beautifully captured in the book “The Girl from Aleppo,” co-authored by award-winning journalist Christina Lamb. Yet, the words on the pages merely reflect the vibrant spirit of a young woman who turned an extraordinary journey of survival into a mission of advocacy and leadership.
Nujeen Mustafa’s life is a vivid reminder that adversity can forge leaders, that a disability need not be an obstacle, and that the human spirit’s resilience can transform the world. Her voice continues to echo as a call to action, a testament to the strength of determination, and a beacon of hope for refugees and people with disabilities. Her story symbolises what is possible when courage, resilience, and belief in oneself intersect with the unwavering pursuit of dreams.