An English professor with vision impairment on what it means to work from home

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The white cane rests against the wall. It is work-from-home for this walking-prop ever since visually-impaired professor K. Raghuraman started focussing on having his job done online.

Until mid-March, the duo would commute on the Tambaram-Beach suburban, with the white cane probing the approach road to the Tambaram railway station and its platforms for obstacles.

Raghuraman teaches English at Government Arts and Science College in Chennai, with the commute slashed off his daily must-dos and online classrooms at his disposal, one would expect him to paint a happy picture of how his job underwent digital transformation.

But the picture is not one of complete satisfaction, with the edges crinkled and yellow with technology not particularly friendly to the vision-impaired and out of step with the inclusion narrative.

Where he was up against “physical barriers”, he now seems to be finding himself on digital cul-de-sacs.

The new perspective

It’s already evident that teaching as a profession is going to be hugely impacted by the new normal. Moodle is the choice of the Tamil Nadu Higher Education Department to drive its online teaching programme for colleges, and teachers received platform-orientation on May 15 and 16. Earlier this week, Kerala went live with its online teaching at government colleges, with Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel taking the wraps off this new normal by conducing the first class. Reports from Kerala had it that the first day of online learning ending on a note of confusion, with teachers wishing they had been imparted more training to handle the digital classrooms.

The question is: Where the general section of teachers find themselves out of their depth, how about those with vision impairment?

“The past couple of months, I have been experimenting with digital classrooms and video-conferencing tools. While I am able to accomplish a good number of my critical tasks, I can’t help but notice certain areas where people like me could be better enabled,” explains Raghuraman, a member of Disabilities Rights Alliance.

With colleges still staying closed due to the COVID-19 situation, the professor is under no compulsion to conduct online classes. However, he has been testing the digital-teaching waters, through the voluntary work he is engaged in. As an honorary consultant of Karna Vidya Foundation, a voluntary organisation that seeks to increase the employability quotient of vision-impaired students by imparting employability skills to them, he is teaching these students via Google Classrooms and Skype, and in the process trying to create an online teaching environment.

A new talent pool

“With digital transformation on the cards, and remote-working likely to be a more accepted form of working, the government and the corporate world should look at making use of people with disabilities as a talent pool,” states Raghuraman.

With corporates seeming set on making remote-working more mainstream in a post-COVID-19 work environment, this model could be the best thing to happen to the cause of inclusion, as it would increase the participation of talent pools that languish on the fringes.

“In India, access to most jobs are limited for persons with disabilities on account of unfriendly transport and accessibility options. Remote-working can open up this talent pool,” says Raghuraman, adding that PWD facing mobility problems may be brought on board quickly, an additional level of intervention is required before those with vision impairment are swept into the workforce.

True inclusion

“Teaching is one of those ready employment opportunities for the vision-impaired. But visually-impaired teachers in rural areas are not provided with access to infrastructure that will make them digitally empowered. And then, a number of educationally qualified visually-impaired function as traders at railway stations selling knick-knacks. Many of them would have completed at least a BA education long ago, and turned to this profession for want of opportunities. The government and corporates can look at some of them, impart employability skills and place them in jobs. That would be true inclusion,” details Raghuraman.

Raghuraman in fact does not expect to see these suggestions coming to pass, and this pessimism is fuelled by his view that even what has been promised from the rooftops stays undelivered.

Lack of accessibility

“A majority of government websites have not been constructed according to the accessibility guidelines laid down by the government itself in what is called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0),” says Raghuraman. “Many of the government college websites have not incorporated accessibility in their application process — in August, that would be the mode by which students would be applying to colleges and these include visually-impaired students.”

Teachers’ craft

A visually-impaired teacher can provide a complete teaching exercise only if they are equipped with the know-how of using online features effectively, says Raghuraman.

“A complete teaching experience includes both lecturing to the students and monitoring them. On an online teaching platform, a regular host would be able to take in participants by a quick sweep of the eye. A vision-impaired teacher wouldn’t obviously be able to do this, and would lack a sense of all those who are in attendance, or are leaving the class mid-way, unless a screen-reader option could be activated by way of a single key stroke. On Google Classrooms, I can give marks, ranks and certificates, but it is difficult to maintain attendance. There is a lot of text that can shared, but not multi-media. Google Classrooms is a great tool, but what I am saying is that there should be regular conversations around how the online teaching experience can be made more rounded for vision-impaired teachers. That would lead to the possibilities of these professionals being provided with the tools to help them offer their craft in a more meaningful way,” explains Raghuraman.

“There is increased emphasis on online education at the university level, but there isn’t enough sensitisation about the need to use existing accessibility options, let alone introducing more nuanced accessibility features. There is the ‘accessible text PDF’ option, which would not detract from the PDF-reading experience, but will enable the visually-impaired to also read comfortably. Tell me, how many people choose it? Besides, there should be concerted efforts to make all learning and teaching content accessible.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 9:06:31 AM |

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