By Pirah Aijaz
Azima Dhanjee was born to deaf parents (Child of Deaf Adults – CODA). She is the Co-founder/CEO of ConnectHear and a member of the National Youth Council (a project of the Prime Minister of Pakistan). Growing up in a Deaf community made her realize the importance of making sign language more accessible for such a community in Pakistan. And she along with her two high-school friends, eventually, initiated “ConnectHear”.
ConnectHear aims to promote sign language for the Deaf community in Pakistan. With this initiative, Azima strives to use technology and design thinking to help differently-abled people. Her commendable efforts, have been duly acknowledged by different Newspapers and digital media & other platforms including; The Diana Awards, Forbes, Pioneers Post, and many others. Additionally, she is the recipient of several awards including the P@SHA ICT Awards as well as the winner of the Standard Chartered Women in Tech Competition.
Azima Dhanjee and her extraordinary work for a cause deserve much more attention. And here’s a chance to know more about the milestones she has achieved and the challenges she has faced.
Let’s meet her!
Hi Azima, your initiative ConnectHear- is a social enterprise with a unique approach. What inspired you to start it?
The reason I chose to focus on disability is that I come from a Deaf family myself and sign language is my mother tongue. I have always been interested in enhancing ‘communication’ in our society, from this perspective. Specifically, how can technology be used for such a purpose? Growing up, I was always concerned about how simple communication can be challenging for the Deaf due to the language barrier. Although my parents are super talented and have raised my brother and me, they completely depend on us and others for simple communication. Seeing that made me want to help people with disabilities in some way. That was a turning point in my life when I thought to do something for a cause. In fact, it was difficult to connect with the non-deaf. So due to the lack of awareness and with regard to the Deaf community, I initiated and managed ConnectHear. When I was at University, I decided to take the initiative and launch ConnectHear. Now, it has been five years since it was founded, and is one of the leading Organizations that support differently-abled people, especially, the Deaf community.
Tell us a bit more about the services you offer.
Our main focus area is Sign Language Interpretation Solutions. We have an application called the “ConnectHear” app. It can be downloaded on anyone’s phones, tablets, and computers. Through this application, Deaf people can connect with a virtual sign language interpreter who interprets the conversation on their behalf. They also make phones. Through their mobile phones, the Deaf community is able to communicate independently. So, it’s instant and remote. This way, our interpreters can help them through video calls from anywhere. In addition, we also offer in-person interpretation services. We also interpret video content. Furthermore, we have instructors who are well trained and have a curriculum for teaching sign language.
How difficult has the journey been, of setting it all up?
While we work on a focused area, when we started in 2017, a lot of people didn’t have much awareness regarding the issue. They didn’t know how it works and everything. So, alongside providing our services, we had to educate them in order to raise awareness. Every individual in society was ready for it. So to make them realize that the issue exists, we had to take actionable steps towards the cause. It has been a great journey, with a lot of learning and its own set of challenges but it has been very rewarding too. We had to involve more people in different ways, to help spread awareness. This multiplication proved impactful.
What are some of the challenges, you still have to face?
Finding good human resources and people who are passionate about the cause and have experience in this field, who can join us and help us to succeed. It is challenging to find like-valued people, with the eagerness to learn, get trained, and become a part of our team.
What milestones, were you over-joyed, to achieve?
Among many others, the number one milestone was when we did a Deaf concert in our early days. We were able to partner up with the Strings music band at Habib University to organize a Deaf concert where more than 300 Deaf people enjoyed music for the very first time in their lives. And we could show that any space can be accessible by having sign language interpreters on stage. By doing so, everyone enjoyed the music, lights, and environment. We then did several partnerships including Lahooti Mela and much more. Another milestone was when the “ConnectHear” mobile application was launched in the presence of The First Lady at The Dubai Expo 2020 and also The CM Sindh at CM House to give communicative independence to the Deaf community.
How would you define success?
For me, success is when ConnectHear can create an impact in the lives of people. The work we do, whatever it is, must be able to generate a lot of impact in people’s lives. This is if they can bring some sustainability into their lives, or if they can inspire people on those numbers and terms. For example, if someone attended an event and was inspired to make their own event/s more ‘accessible’ with sign language, that is also a success for me.
In your opinion, what is the attitude of an average Pakistani, towards people with special needs?
Pakistan as a Nation is very helpful and respectful. People want to be there for each other. They want to work with differently-abled people and support them, but they don’t have much awareness. They don’t know that the PWDs community and the Deaf community can also work regularly to get a better quality of life. They can be educated and connected with work opportunities. So, I would say there’s a dire need to raise awareness and provide a forum for them to interact with one another.
Do you ever face trouble when speaking in Sign language with locals or foreigners?
Every country has its own sign language. The sign language we use in Pakistan is Pakistani sign language. Because the world is globalized, we do watch videos of other countries’ sign language to communicate in a better way. Sign language has a lot of expressions, body gestures, and other differences are still there. But Deaf people are able to understand each other regardless of their Nationality/culture.
What job opportunities are there in Pakistan for differently-abled people who speak sign language?
There are many job opportunities for PWDs in different sectors, such as; Banking sector, (after the State Bank of Pakistan’s regulation of hiring disabled people), the Education sector, and others. At ConnectHear, we often announce vacant posts for Deaf trainers and interpreters and graphic designers. Various jobs are now coming out that empower people with disabilities. And the government is also pushing companies to dedicate quotas to us PWDs so that more PWDs can get hired to have a better quality of life.
What initiatives need to be taken to directly benefit the Deaf community in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, anyone can contribute to the cause to directly benefit the Deaf community and PWDs. No matter whatever your profession is, be it a producer, director, writer, news anchor, teacher, trainer, or doctor, you should think about how you can work to make your workspace and service accessible to the Deaf community. Ask yourself what I’m doing is benefiting the PWDs and Deaf community and if not, what can I do to benefit them. So, we can do a lot of things in our own space.