Education of Children with Disabilities during Covid-19 pandemic

Ritu Kalgotra
Covid-19 induced lockdown has its impact on the education of children across the world. Because of covid-19 restrictions, online learning was the only solution globally but children with disabilities have special needs as they have different IQ, rate of learning, memory, retention and require different learning environment. The education of children with disabilities is significantly affected due to the closure of regular schools and special schools in the country. So, the learners with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from schooling and less likely to complete their education due to the COVID-19 pandemic because these children face more inequality in education as compared to other vulnerable categories like caste, gender, religion, etc. To overcome the impact of disruption in education, government, as well as private educational institutions, adopted online education and remote learning practices. But the learners with disabilities are facing barriers due to lack of internet access, adequate teaching-learning content, teachers lacking ICT skills and knowledge for teaching online, and necessary support to pursue their online school education. As a result, many students with disabilities are being left behind, particularly students with intellectual disabilities. A survey was conducted by Swabhiman, a community-based organization, with 3627 learners with disabilities from different areas of Odisha (90%) and 10% from different parts of the country (J&K, Haryana, Pondicherry, MP, TN) participated. The survey further reported that about 56.48% of students with disabilities are continuing their study and the rest 43.52% will drop out or not continue their study because only 56.48% had smartphones, either personally or collectively in the family. About 44% of children with disabilities reported that there was no sign language interpreter present on the webinars and nearly 86% of the parents did not know the use of technology.
To meet the educational needs of children with disabilities in India, it’s not a very good idea to rely heavily on technology for children in remote areas with limited internet access, poor households, and children having complex learning needs. It needs efforts for an online learning platform to remove barriers and focus on the education of students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, hearing deficits, learning disabilities, memory impairment. For the children with different levels of intellectual disabilities, the situation is, even worse as teachers need Individualized Education Plans and modified lessons to make every child learn. And without support, technology-based online learning can play little role in their learning.
Education for Children with Disabilities in India
Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan) under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment aims to facilitate empowerment and inclusion of the persons with disabilities and cover various aspects namely, prevention, early detection, intervention, education, health, vocational training, rehabilitation, and social integration. Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (2018), a centrally sponsored scheme envisages improving quality of education, ensuring equity and inclusion at all levels of school education and vocational training from preschool to senior secondary levels. Right to Education Act, (2009) describes the modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children between the age of 6 to 14 years in India under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution. National policy for persons with disabilities (2016) advocates ensuring inclusion and effective access to education, health, vocational training along specialized rehabilitation services to children with disabilities. There are nine National Institutes of Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) which are primarily engaged in Human Resources Development in the field of disability.
Online learning of the Children with Disabilities during COVID 19
In March 2020, World Health Organization, in Disability Considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak recommended some targeted measures for people with disabilities and their support networks which included an appropriate action by schools and other educational facilities to ensure continued education for students with disabilities who may be required to study from home for longer periods. Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for protection and safety of persons with disabilities during COVID-19 issued by the Ministry of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (2020) also discusses how to provide critical facilities and assistance to people with disabilities, but there are no provisions laid to ensure any kind of distance, open, or home-based education for children. In 2020, the theme for International Day for Persons with Disabilities by United Nations was “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and post COVID-19 World” but persons with disabilities face discrimination in every sphere of life restricting them from participating in society equally as others.
Initiatives by the Government of India
To ensure equal access to online learning to all the children, the Department of School Literacy and Education is also playing a proactive role in ensuring access to education through various online platforms and initiatives like Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), e-Pathshala, National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER), SWAYAM platforms (including DTH channels), Radio classes, etc.
National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) digital books can be downloaded free through the e-Pathshaala mobile app. Books having UNICODE can be read using a Text-to-Speech (TTS) by students with special needs. National Institute of Open Schooling has incorporated different features in the website to make it easier for users to browse such as in display settings, alternate description for images and audio/video, ease of navigation, content readability and structure and keyboard support. For the visually impaired learners, study material has been developed in Digitally Accessible Information System (DAISY), a technical standard for digital audiobooks, periodicals, and computerized text whereas an Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary has been developed to facilitate communication and education of deaf and hard-of-hearing learners. More than 270 videos in sign language in 7 subjects are developed by NIOS to provide educational access to learners at the secondary level. The department of School Education and Literacy has developed Barkha: A Reading Series for ‘All’ which is based on the principles of inclusion and the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The digital version of this reading series is available on the NCERT website and the e-pathshala portal. Promotion of the utilization of different educational technologies through television, radio, films, satellite communications, and cyber media, etc. is done by NCERT, through the Central Institute of Education Technology (CIET).
Futuristic vision
There is an urgent need for modification in policies that affect access to education and provide long-term solutions to the problem of education through the virtual platform for persons with disabilities. Since there are different types of disabilities, e-learning programs should be disability-specific and not general for all types of disabilities. So, there is a need to create opportunities to enable inclusion for every child in education through e-learning. Teachers need guidelines, training and support for the use of ICT in imparting education to the students with disabilities in a virtual network setting. Special provisions or e-learning methods can assist special educators to communicate with maximum children through online classes. Parents and caregivers need assistance in setting up equipment and support the education program of their children with disabilities. Developing online personalized learning apps in disability-specific format could be an innovation. To address the disabilities-specific issues related to technology based e-learning, there is a need for well-analyzed and documented research. Despite current initiatives, much more efforts are still needed on the part of teachers, parents, caregivers, and government in adopting educational technologies for the benefit of the students/children with disabilities. The aim to develop a technologically learned inclusive society is only possible through the integration of pedagogy with technology.
(The author is from Department of School Education, UT of J&K)