New Delhi – Since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close their in-person classes, Babita Kumari, a resident of Delhi, has been learning how to use Zoom, a video-conferencing application. She sits with her 14-year-old son every day for his online classes. After the day’s classes, Kumari, who is in her early forties, helps her son study what she has just learned. But it’s not easy for both of them.
“My son gets bored and doesn’t understand anything being taught,” she said. “In school, at least he had a special educator to help him.” Kumari’s son has dyslexia, a learning disability common in at least 30 million children in India, according to a 2015 government estimate.
Kumari takes care of the household work while helping her kid. She fears that her lack of education is a hindrance to her child’s. Kumari has studied till class 9 from a government school. “I have to keep one step ahead of my son so that I can teach him. I don’t mind it, but I wish the school didn’t take exams as well,” she added.
All educational institutions across the country have remained closed since the first nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 to stop the spread of coronavirus pandemic. As a replacement for regular classes, many schools have adopted the online teaching model. However, the model poses challenges to students with learning disabilities, and amid all this, very few schools have figured out how to reach out to children with disabilities.
“My son’s life revolves around a routine, said Anita Pradeep, whose son has cerebral palsy. “Initially, when the lockdown started, he was very anxious. The computer course he was taking at Raksha Society, a special education school in Kochi, was the only time he would get to venture out. He misses seeing his friends and teachers a lot.”
While reports of families who consider online classes a boon abound, there are aspects of the model which expose a digital divide. Further, for students with disabilities, lack of adequate resources, and proper guidelines from the government or schools threaten to invisibilize them. With parents having to turn into make-shift educators, families of children with disabilities struggle in ways that remain unseen.
The governments, both at central and state levels, are promoting online learning. The recent directive for the extended lockdown by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare states that online/distance learning shall continue and should also be encouraged. Initiatives like SWAYAM and TV classrooms have been launched by the central government to help children keep learning amid the lockdown.
However, the government is yet to design specific programs for online mass home-schooling aimed at children in need of special care.
“To provide online teaching to disabled children is a vastly different issue,” said Manish Pandey, Chairperson of Child Welfare Committee, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. “Most children with special needs also need a routine. For them, it is very important to know the teacher, to see them, be around them. For some physically disabled children, online teaching might work. But it is almost impossible for the ones with intellectual or multiple disabilities.”
Pandey’s 12-year-old son, has autism, a mental disorder with persistent problems in social communication, and restricted, repetitive behaviour patterns, rigid routines, fixated interests, and sensory differences. He still gets ready every morning to go to school while his father readies for office. “I still go to work every morning, but it breaks my heart to keep saying no to him. My wife runs an NGO, so she is also busy. It gets very tough sometimes.”
“My son,” Pandey added, “sometimes bursts into fits of shouting. It is hard to see him like that.”
Children with disabilities do not go to school just for regular classes but have specific needs that have to be addressed. Some require speech therapy; others require linguistic and physiotherapy, among other things.
For students with a visual disability, according to Javed Abidi Foundation, which works for the education of disabled people, most online materials are inaccessible since they are in the form of scanned images. Online classes remain inaccessible to hearing-impaired persons since sign language is not used during these classes.
On April 29, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment notified the Ministry of Human Resource Development to order all states and union territories to extend equal opportunity to all students with disabilities, according to media reports.
Special educators and parents play a significant role in the learning and development of children with special needs. At a time when they cannot go to school, the dependence on parents is more than ever. They are now required to take up the role of teachers as well.
“The load on family members right now is immense,” said Dr. Anusha Ramanathan, a curriculum consultant at Centre for Education Innovation and Action Research, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. However, according to Ramanathan, it is difficult in case of blind children whose parents are not educated enough to be able to read out for them.
Parents having children with learning disabilities have to be with them throughout their online class, “especially for reading and writing; otherwise, the children won’t stay still,” said Elizabeth Philip, principal, and psychologist at Raksha Society, a special education school in Kochi for children with learning disabilities. So the teaching is greatly dependent on the occupation of the parents also.”
However, many parents find it challenging to help their children while managing other work. “Earlier, when my husband and children would be outside during the day, I would at least get some privacy,” said Kumari, whose son has dyslexia. “I could carve out some time for myself. Now I have no time at all. I sit at the home, cook, and take care of the children. I start getting headaches,” she lamented.
India’s digital divide aggravates the already difficult situation that many families are facing. While there are 650 million Internet users in India, internet penetration, or the portion of the population that has access to the Internet, remains at a modest 50%. According to a report released early this year, over 60% of India’s population doesn’t own a smartphone.
“Sometimes when the network is not available, we need to wait,” said Kumari, whose family belongs to the economically weaker section of the society. “But we’re already backward in many things; these issues cause us to lag further behind.”
She added that her husband lost his phone three weeks ago and had to buy a new one because his children needed it for their online classes. “We don’t even have any salary coming in right now. Instead of buying a phone, we could have bought books and so many other things. We can’t convey all these things to the school.”
“Definitely technology isn’t there with the poor,” said Ramanathan, the consultant at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “If they do have phones, they might not even be smartphones or the parents would need to use them. In fact, they might not even be able to play any media too well on them.”
Early last month, the Delhi High Court asked the Centre and the Delhi government to respond to a plea requesting them to provide free laptops, tablets, or mobile phones to poor kids to help them access online classes during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.
For families from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, online learning is “either non-existent or discontinuous,” said Philip, the principal, and psychologist at Raksha Society, from Kochi.
Besides improving the infrastructure needed for online classes, Philip believed, “There is also a dire need for training, not just for the teachers, but for the parents and children as well, so that they are able to handle such situations better” especially in the case of children with special needs.