Meet IIT Professor Sujatha Srinivasan Who Designed India’s First Standing Wheelchair

Prof Sujatha Srinivasan, IIT Madras

Growing up, Prof Sujatha Srinivasan says that she had a penchant for tinkering with stuff around the house; fixing the tape player, or the cycle and whatnot. Now a professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at IIT Madras, she heads the Centre for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development (R2D2). In fact, it is she who founded R2D2, with the aim of developing affordable and functional assistive devices. R2D2’s most celebrated feat is “Arise” a wheelchair that helps a person move from sitting to standing position and vice versa, and only costs Rs 15,000.

In addition to developing devices, the R2D2 team has now started working on awareness programs in collaboration with organizations like the Spinal Foundation, which is a user group for people with Spinal Cord Injury. “We’re creating resources in multiple languages and formats to increase awareness on self-care, facilitate informed choices and proper use of devices, and inspire through peer mentors. The goal is to have people demand better devices and better infrastructure for a truly inclusive society,” Srinivasan tells SheThePeople.TV.

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So what made Srinivasan opt for Mechanical Engineering, a branch that is not exactly very popular among women engineers? “I would say Mechanical Engineering (ME) chose me based on my IIT-JEE rank and my preference to stay in Madras at that time!” she says, adding that it was a friend of hers who convinced her that this was the right field for her. “I became friends with a senior in ME at IIT Madras, Radha Sarma. She was very passionate about the subject and my talks with her convinced me to stick with ME, even though I was eligible for a branch change to CS or Electrical at the end of my first year. Turned out to be one of the best decisions I made!”

Women don’t tend to measure their self-worth in terms of external success, which can make for a happier life.

Dealing with Bias

Mechanical or otherwise, any woman who chooses to pursue a career in any STEM field has to deal with gender bias on way or the other. For some the otherisation based on gender is loud and clear, but for Sujatha, it wasn’t so. “When it happens, it is subtle and more of an annoyance – like emails always starting with Dear Sir, students always spoken about in the male gender, etc., as if we women faculty/students don’t even exist,” says she, crediting her 15 years worth work experience in the US with instilling in her a lot of confidence and the ability to hold her own in this male-dominated field. “At my job there (in traditional design and manufacturing, no less), even though I was still the only woman among eight engineers, my gender didn’t seem to matter – only my competence did, and it was very liberating.”

However one has to concede here that Mechanical Engineering is one of the worst-hit branches by skewered gender ratio that runs like a pattern throughout IITs in our country. Sujatha thinks that one of the reasons why so few women end up pursuing ME is this common misconception people have of it not being suitable for women.

But the thinning of the female population in ME begins long before one gets to opt for a branch. It was reported that in 2017 for instance, that only 8 percent of IIT seats in B. Tech programs were occupied by women. To correct this discrepancy it was announced in March this year that 20 percent of IIT seats were to be reserved for women. According to Srinivasan, this is a step in the right direction. “I think it will make for healthier interactions among the students, who are at an impressionable age. We have to be proactive to effect change and almost always, I believe, reforms work best when leaders in the majority are bought into the idea and see the benefits of diversity – like in the case of the committee headed by Prof. Timothy Gonsalves (Director of IIT Mandi), which introduced the supernumerary seats for girls in IIT.”

Sujatha knows why it is critical to correct the skewered gender ration in IITs from personal experience. Being the only girl in ME in a class of 60 when she took admission, she felt quite isolated and was afraid to speak up or participate in class, missing out on group studies, industrial tours, etc.

Prof Sujatha Srinivasan

Prof Sujatha Srinivasan

But with awareness comes change, and the constant din over low female population on IIT campuses along with rising enthusiasm among Indian parents to not hold back daughters when it comes to higher education is gradually showing results, and again Srinivasan is witnessing the change first hand, through her daughter’s experience. “My daughter joined IIT for her B.Tech last year and with way more girls in just her branch than in my entire batch, I can already see that she’s having a far more wholesome experience in her interactions across gender.”

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The struggle however doesn’t end with breaking into a stream, for then women have to struggle uphill to have their voices heard and their achievements and breakthroughs acknowledged. “Women have always had to work twice as hard to stand out among men, get partial credit (if at all) and be apologetic even for this meagre success,” opines Srinivasan. But according to her, this dark cloud that mars the progress of women in science too has its own silver lining, “To me, the upside of it is that women don’t tend to measure their self-worth in terms of external success, which can make for a happier life.”

When you zoom out of STEM, there is a struggle that every working woman has to deal with, that of the pressure to strike a balance between her work and personal life. STEM is no more disadvantaged than medicine or law or management or anything else in this case, Sujatha feels. According to her, unless men and women see their family as a responsibility that needs to be shouldered together on an equal footing, the problem of work-life balance will persist.

Unless we see that we are cutting off the contributions of a section of the population, and realize the economic and social disadvantages of doing so, meaningful change will not happen.

However, she does add that a career outside the home is not the only thing that defines a person. “You have to make conscious choices to have the balance. In my case, both my husband and I are not ambitious. However, we are very particular about doing a good job of whatever we take on, so, over the years, we’ve learned to be careful about what we take on work-wise,” says Sujatha. She reveals that in her household the chores are shared as per necessity. “There are no set roles, and the children pitch in too as they’ve gotten older. I have seen this to be the case with many of my peers as well, so I am quite hopeful of the future – with a critical mass of children who have been raised to not subscribe to traditional roles in the household, change will happen.”

While Srinivasan may say that she is not ambitious, the work that she and her R2D2 has been doing is both pathbreaking and socially relevant. In a country of 1.3 billion for a department at one of the most reputed engineering colleges to channel their resources and talent to better the lives of specially abled-individuals whose needs are often overlooked is commendable. As she herself points out, “If women, who make up 50% of the population are still fighting to be heard, you can imagine the challenges of the differently-abled! It’s a Catch-22 situation for them – because most outdoor and public spaces are not accessible, you don’t see them out and about, and because they are not seen, they are forgotten.”

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While R2D2’s work in the field is commendable, India as a society is a long way from showing such dedication to solve the issues faced by its specially-abled citizens. According to Srinivasan, a fundamental change in attitude needs to happen to enable inclusion, and just building a few ramps is not enough. “Unless we see that we are cutting off the contributions of a section of the population, and realize the economic and social disadvantages of doing so, meaningful change will not happen.”

I believe, reforms work best when leaders in the majority are bought into the idea and see the benefits of diversity

As with women, the advantaged majority has a responsibility to help make change happen, and not just leave it to the disadvantaged minority to keep fighting for it, says Srinivasan, reasoning that “Disability is imposed on someone because of the environment’s inability to accommodate the different needs.”

Her statement rings equally true for girls of this country who have their abilities curtailed by gender-related stereotypes and stigma, imposed on them by society. Gradually they are breaking free from these constraints, and women like Srinivasan who are the modern face of science in India have played a big role in it by inspiring them.

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But if Srinivasan could tell our girls one thing, it would be to follow their heart, STEM or no STEM, and to not be afraid to speak their mind. “I think there are umpteen opportunities these days and it’s nice to see our children be more open-minded about what they want and willing to think outside the Engineering/Medicine box.”