Visually impaired struggle with NCERT e-textbooks

Over 60% of NCERT chapters and over 95% of SCERT books are either totally or partially inaccessible.

April 11, 2021 08:45 pm | Updated April 13, 2021 02:48 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Photo for respresentational purpose.

Photo for respresentational purpose.

For Class VII student Tejasvi Raj, doing his daily homework comes with the double challenge of being a visually impaired student in the COVID-19 era of virtual schooling. His screen reading software can’t access the PowerPoint presentation that his teachers had prepared for online school. E-textbooks provided on the government’s virtual platform DIKSHA, which it has promoted as a transformative resource for digital education, are not fully accessible either.

“The PowerPoints [presentations] for Zoom classes are sent to students in PDF format, so they are not readable for him. The NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) e-textbooks are only partly readable. Any time they have images or diagrams, it is blank for him. Hindi and Sanskrit books are not readable at all,” said his mother Manorama Yadav, adding that COVID-19 had made everything more difficult for the student of Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram. “Teachers are already coping with so many changes in online school. Even for his assignments and exam papers, I have to keep reminding them to send it in Word format. I worry that if classes don’t restart, he will keep falling behind,” she added.

According to a recent study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, more than half of the NCERT textbooks available on the government’s virtual education platform DIKSHA are not accessible for visually impaired students. In fact, the DIKSHA platform itself is difficult to navigate for visually impaired students, said the report.

“Take for example, the drop down menu for language selection. Rather than clearly stating different language options available, the screen reader announces ‘clickable, clickable, clickable’. This is due to different scripts used for the different languages, which are not readable by a screen reading software,” said the report, adding that the filter for selecting the correct class, and the links for downloading materials were also not accessible.

Analysis of 65 chapters from e-textbooks published by NCERT and the Tamil Nadu and Telangana State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) also found that many pages are published in formats which are not navigable for the screen reader, while visual elements such as images, graphs and watermarks also impede comprehension. More than 60% of the NCERT chapters were either totally or partially inaccessible, the report said, while it was over 95% for the SCERT books. More than half of the 907 learning activities in the NCERT texts were also inaccessible for a visually impaired student, with the worst being 80% for Mathematics.

For Sanya Gandhi, an 18-year student of Political Science at Delhi’s Hindu College, the challenges are familiar. “I’m a person with a lot of logical and reasoning ability, and I would have liked to do Mathematics. But I could not access so much of my Maths textbooks in school, especially geometry or trigonometry. So I had to compromise on my ambitions,” she said, pointing out that in the U.S. and the U.K., formats and software which can make diagrams and symbols accessible to visually impaired students are in wider use. “In India, in recent years, we have placed a lot of focus on physical infrastructure that aids accessibility for students with disabilities. But we still have a digital divide,” she added.

Anirban Mukherjee, a visually impaired English teacher in a small town 40 km away from Kolkata, adds that the difficulties are worse for students in vernacular languages. The West Bengal Board of Secondary Education texts are not accessible on the DIKSHA platform, and most books are uploaded in scanned PDF formats that are impossible for a screen reader to access, he says, adding that at least English texts are available in Braille. Even as a teacher, he finds it impossible to correct assignments which his students send in picture formats.

“At least the better mainstream schools moved to online schooling. But many less privileged visually impaired students study in special schools with hostels which shut down due to COVID-19. Few of them have smartphones. So their education has been completely derailed,” he said.

Recording someone reading out textbooks, reformatting e-textbooks, and providing direct teacher contact are urgent steps that need to be initiated. “Very minor tweaks are required. But accessibility is simply not a priority,” he added.

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