Online education puts disabled students at risk of becoming invisible, warns new report
Even as we celebrate the academic achievements of students with disabilities in the recent board exams, a survey underlines how these gains could be lost in the switch to online education due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Over 40% of disabled students plan to discontinue their studies due to the barriers faced in accessing online education. This is among the key findings of the report ‘Digital education in India: Will students with disabilities miss the bus?’ The study has been conducted by Swabhiman – State disAbility Information and Resource Centre and the disability legislation unit of eastern India of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).
The report says that disabled students are unable to cope with this switch to online/digital medium of instruction. The underlying reality points out Dr. Sruti Mohapatra, Founder, Swabhiman, is that children from government schools belong to poor families, and a large proportion of them were not users or owners of smartphones which are being used for online education.
- Only 56.5% of students were “struggling yet attending classes” irregularly.
- Around 77% of students said they would not be able to cope and would fall behind due to their inability to access distance learning methods.
- 71% were finding it hard to cope with the changed social and educational scenario.
- Parents of 90% of children with disabilities said teachers were not giving them attention.
- 86% children with disabilities do not how to use technology. 76% of mothers said they did not know how to help as they themselves did not understand technology.
- 81% of teachers do not have access to accessible educational material suitable for online learning, with them.
- 64% of students did not have smartphones or computers at home.
The report also says that 67% students expressed a need for laptops, smartphones or tabs for educational purposes, while 77% asked for study material in alternate format suitable for children with disabilities. Around 74% of needed data/Wi-fi support for educational purposes while 61% expressed a need for scribes, escorts, readers and attendants.
Students also raised other issues like difficulty in staying engaged for long online classes. Many visually impaired students found it hard to understand lessons with many students talking simultaneously. Lack of sign language interpreters was another issue.
The result is that students with disabilities are at serious risk of becoming invisible, says Tulika Das from Sanchar in West Bengal. “Children from middle, lower middle class and poor backgrounds are going to government schools. In West Bengal there are huge school dropouts by the children with disabilities. Our children will become invisible in education. When schools reopen, I don’t think they will be motivated to go to school anymore.”
There are also concerns about the possible impact on mental health. Srinivasalu, National Disabled Persons’ Organisation, Telangana says, “At least children with disabilities were going to school, meeting friends, teachers were supporting their education and they were getting hot meals. Parents are calling every day to inform that children with disabilities are very lonely. There are many mental and psychological issues and they need counselling.”
Swabhiman has also come out with a list of comprehensive recommendations that cover aspects of students’, parents’ and teachers’ lives.
The first requisite is reading material in alternate formats. “This is a non-negotiable. Alternate course material must cater to different disabilities. Our recommendations include empowering students, teachers and parents so that they can play their roles more effectively. The current pandemic has the potential of leaving students with disability behind. If adequate measures are not taken urgently, they are likely to suffer irrecoverable losses in their quest for education and a life of dignity. – Dr Sruti Mohapatra, Founder, Swabhiman
The recommendations also focus on addressing the specific needs of disabled students’ instead of clubbing them together, empowering parents so that they are able to learn new technology and support their children, providing hardware support like computers/tabs to disabled students, exploring other teaching mediums such as television and community radio, and ensuring provision of nutritional support to children at home.
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