As the debate over the merits and demerits of online education continues, the struggle for inclusive education has become harder for many children with disabilities as virtual classes are presenting new challenges related to access.
Those who have access to a computer and internet want a blended approach while children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds and rural areas stand to lose.
G.N. Nagaraj, president of Karnataka State Disabled and Caregivers Federation, said the digital divide was an important aspect as there are a large number of children with disabilities in rural areas without access to technology or the internet.
“There are children, whose parents are construction workers and agricultural labourers, who were already struggling to go to school. They are dealing with prejudice in the house too. The biggest motivation of education is to go to school and mingle with other children. Moreover, online education is only rote learning. With the COVID-19 restrictions, we should at least try and overcome the digital divide,” he said.
Different disabilities, different requirements
The other major challenge with online learning for this particular section is the wide spectrum of disabilities, with a specific disability requiring specific necessities.
“One needs speaking computers for the blind, sign language for the hearing impaired. But such modifications are a very big effort,” added Mr. Nagaraj.
Not without benefits
There are parents who have found online learning beneficial.
Salma, the parent of a child with different learning needs, said her son finds it difficult to process information in a group, but with a headphone on, he is able to prioritise better. The fact that all disabilities are clubbed as one is a huge issue, she said. “For example, each dyslexic child is different from the other. The law needs to acknowledge the differences and make education more self paced and inclusive. Online education, if done properly, is an opportunity to provide such inclusive education,” she said.
But she pointed out that the message is not being changed according to the medium. “Many schools are replicating face-to-face interactions in the online space, which results in sitting in front of the screen through the day. We need to work with the advantages of the online space,” she added.
High quality content is already available even for children with different learning needs online.
“This changes the role of the teacher from being a content creator to a guide, mentor and coach. The teacher, as a subject expert, can organise this information based on the school curriculum, share it 20-minute pre-recorded videos or audio. This will allow children to access content at their own pace without necessarily always being in front of the screen,” she said, adding that online live classes can be minimised and teachers can be free enough to be available for one-on-one consultations
Arman Ali, executive director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), said in this phase of e-education, the challenge of making learning mainstream for differently-abled students involves the lack of accessible learning materials, skilled educators, and other resources.
“There is a sheer lack of sensitivity to the special needs of students where the majority are left out due to ineffective planning by the government and other stakeholders. Access to fundamental rights, like education, has always remained a challenge for children with disabilities in India – 75% were already out of school. This gap has widened more in the last four months due to factors like the digital divide, urban and rural divide, lack of sensitivity towards the needs of children with disabilities, and resources,” he said.
Long-term sustainable solutions is the answer.
“Educational institutions must be sensitised about the needs of students with disabilities that could enable them to be a part of the mainstream education system. There are 21 disabilities. Each has specific needs. It is imperative that they are provided with all the requisite facilities,” he added.