Shift to online teaching ‘abrupt’, disabled students’ neglected, say parents’ groups
More than a week after many schools across India shifted to online teaching, there are growing protests from parents of children with disabilities. Disability rights groups are also calling upon the government to do a rethink on its decision to push digital education. That’s the focus on #StoryOfTheWeek.
The new school year has started for Sivaa Menon on a rather different note. This 11-year-old from Kochi, who is on the autism spectrum, learns by following his teacher’s instructions online as she guides him through therapy sessions.
It’s a sharp contrast to life before lockdown.
“In school he would get to do a lot of yoga, sports and other physical exercises but all that has stopped”, says Preetha Anoop Menon, Sivaa’s mother. “Now he has therapy sessions twice a week where he revises what he learned earlier. He is not practicing his writing skills as he finds them hard to follow online”.
Preetha worries about the long-term impact of this virtual learning.
“The school is being quite supportive and is not pushing parents to take online classes. It has even asked the district collector for permission to conduct some sessions on campus”, she says. The new system is not easy on her either. “I have to sit with Sivaa constantly to translate what the teacher says. He is not able to catch everything, and I repeat her instructions to ensure he understands”.
Struggles faced by disabled students
Ernakulam-based A K Sivadas shares a similar story. His 19-year-old son with autism is struggling with virtual classes. “The teacher is not able to communicate properly online. My son is non-verbal and learns through physical gestures. He keeps laughing in front of the screen and does not learn anything”.
These concerns were flagged by prominent Kerala-based parents support group TogetherWeCan (TwC) just ahead of the schools reopening online on 1 June. In a petition to the Kerala government, it urged them to reconsider the move. Among the concerns raised was the impact on mental health and neglect of the needs of children with disabilities.
Parent empowerment is key while working with children with neuro-diversities and this was addressed ineffectively as it is. Most schools India do not follow the mode of differentiated teaching within classrooms which involve parents, teachers and peer groups. Now, with the system turning online, this divide has widened. The responsibility has shifted on the parent entirely suddenly. – Seema Lal, Special Educator/Co-founder, TogetherWeCan
‘Disruptive’ & ‘impersonal’
Virtual learning completely discounts the possibility of the school/teacher establishing a personal connect . The impact, says Seema, is already being felt.
“We have parents, teachers and counsellors sending videos, voice recordings and texts of their struggles to cope. Even pre-schoolers are made to sit in front of screens while teachers show them videos. This affects everyone – schools, teachers, parents, children, the very education system. But we should have taken care of the weakest link first and that is children with disabilities”, adds Seema.
The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), the cross-disability rights group, has taken note of the issue. In a statement it has slammed the push for digital education as exclusionary and says the Centre is using the pandemic to implement its new education policy, which has attracted much criticism from many groups.
“With internet penetration being as low as 39 per cent, it would leave out most of our student community. Apart from availability of smart phones and computers at home, for the disabled there is the additional issue of availability of software and hardware to make these devices accessible. Currently, the discussions around the teaching and learning methods are not taking into cognisance the interests of students with disabilities. Additionally, the disabled are not a homogenous group – their issues are varied and so are their solutions”, says the statement.
Push for online education against RPWD Act
Additionally, the push towards digital education “militates against” the provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. “The Act mandates inclusive education, differentiated teaching and peer support which is the antithesis to the concept of online education”.
The NPRD has demanded that the Centre hold consultations with all stakeholders, including representatives of disability rights organisations to discuss ways to address these major gaps.
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