How an audible cricket ball changed the life of Indian blind cricket team captain Ajay Reddy
When ingenuity is applied to assistive technology, the results can be truly transformative. Ajay Kumar Reddy, captain of India’s visually impaired cricket team, is a living example and his experience is the very premise of the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (SICA).
Today, technology is an agent of social change and empowerment for those with special needs. Yet limited investments in these assistive technologies have held back their fuller exploitation, with the result that innovation remains shallow.
To that end, Prosus in partnership with Social Alpha, Invest India, and World Health Organization have launched the second edition of SICA, aiming to support startups developing assistive technology and foster a culture of innovation in an under-served sector. Such investments and support can potentially create a life of opportunities and purpose for people with disabilities.
Since 2016, Ajay has represented India in visually impaired cricket, earning an envious reputation for being the world’s fastest bowler, best all-rounder, the only captain to win 20 matches in a row, receiving 13 ‘Man of the Series’ and 60 ‘Man of the Match’ titles, and scoring the fastest century in just 33 bowls against England in 2021.
It all started with an accident at the age of four. “My parents were farmers and woke up at the crack of dawn every day to tend to our farm in a small village in Andhra Pradesh. One day as on most days, there was an electricity shortage, and I couldn’t sleep. In a daze, I tried searching for my mother who was in the fields and hit my left eye against the lock of our front door. I lost vision in that eye instantly. By the age of 12, I lost most of my vision in my right eye too,” recalls Ajay.
Life as he knew it was over as he was forced to shift from a regular school to one for the blind. He was resentful and shut himself off, until on the tenth day at his new school when Ajay heard an object flying towards the closest window in class.
It was an audible cricket ball.
As he was passionate about cricket and used to enjoy the sport before his accident, the sound triggered an epiphany. “That is when I broke my self-imposed isolation,” he recalls with pride.
“My classmates told me all about blind cricket and that Pakistan was the undisputed champion. In fact, it had won another Blind World Cup that year. Why has India been left behind? I excused myself from class, ran to the school’s compound, and begged my seniors to play. After a week of dogged patience, they finally let me, and I exceeded their expectations and my own. I haven’t looked back since,” shares Ajay.
Achievements and future plans
He won laurels for India at four world cups, Asian championships, and others. He has been felicitated by the President of India twice - in 2012 by Pranab Mukherjee and in 2018 by Ramnath Kovind - and by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, twice in 2014.
While the cricketer’s childhood dream of joining the defence forces remained unfulfilled, Ajay found his own way of patriotic service. As one of the newest jurors in the Prosus SICA 2021 panel, he will look for products and services that are simple, yet present exciting possibilities for users. For instance, the Cricket Association for the Blind is in talks with a few Chennai-based companies to devise bowling machines for the blind, so that his teammates and proteges can practise by themselves.
The Prosus SICA challenge this year will scale it up, as organisers look for certain "moon-shot" ideas in assistive technology. Apart from technology, affordability, and scalability, "what we're focusing on is enabling the judges to also look at some moon-shot ideas. Some ideas that might not seem natural initially, but something that could be transformative in the future," says Sehraj Singh, India Managing Director, Prosus.
"Together as a jury panel, as a company, we would like to look for one or two of those companies and then mentor them," he adds.
Ajay hopes Prosus SICA 2021 will spur enhanced research and development into tech accessibility so that India’s blind youth can aspire and achieve more.
Eligible startups can apply now until October 19. The top startups will be announced in December to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.