The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year drastically disrupted the overall education system across the globe. Closer home, as schools and colleges swiftly moved to online classes, there was a disproportionate impact on education of students with disabilities. During the initial phase of the nationwide lockdown, many were not able to attend online classes due to lack of guidelines and absence of tools to facilitate students with visual, hearing or specific learning disabilities.
Not that the situation earlier was fully conducive, but the pandemic exposed the stark lack of academic infrastructure for students with disabilities in Indian universities. They had to suddenly deal with compounded challenges; the most critical one being lack of access to technology and assistive devices that could have eased the “non-inclusive” nature of typical teaching content.
Need for planning
While there has been progress in making education accessible to all — the National Education Policy 2020 included proposals on barrier-free access to education and teacher training programmes — the magnitude and complexities involved in implementation need exhaustive planning and meticulous execution. As Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) aspire to prepare the next generation to be global players, they must also contribute towards creating an inclusive society.
While most universities in India are yet to begin classes on campus and are using e-learning to ensure continuation of academic activities, government authorities can adopt some long-term measures that will help establish a process that addresses the needs of all learners. One of the key tenets of inclusive education is to make provisions that can give the students with specific needs full access to adequate services. To ensure this, we require a coordinated approach that makes universal accessibility norms an integral part of pedagogy and teaching methodology in universities. Inter-ministerial coordination would be required for an all-encompassing standardised guidelines for digital education infrastructure. These guidelines will ensure that digital education being imparted in schools and universities is being made available to learners with disabilities.
On ground, a learning support system needs to be established in each university — both public and private. This may be managed by a dedicated office or centre that would ensure a smooth transition for students with disabilities, their integration into the social environment of the campus, access to course material and technologies for improved academic experience, avail academic accommodations, and other pedagogical provisions.
A diligent effort in awareness and sensitisation towards people with disabilities is paramount. Stigma attached to looking or thinking differently than the “accepted” norm needs to be eradicated and educating people is the first step.
While there are visible disabilities that need an accessible physical and academic infrastructure in HEIs, the invisible ones such as Autism Spectrum, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) need to be understood and seen as learning and thinking differences. The unique perspectives all these students bring in to the learning and teaching experiences of the higher education landscape make it an enriching environment for all, including neurotypical students, the teaching faculty and the overall community.
While a systemic change in the higher education ecosystem may take time, breaking from the past and re-imagining the world of education, especially post pandemic, will be a welcome step for all, including people with disabilities.
The writer is an Educational Therapist and Director, Office of Learning Support, Ashoka University.