Despite a legislative framework that recognises and claims to safeguard the rights of children with disabilities under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Right to Education Act, the Indian education system is far from delivering quality education and learning to them. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, one–fourth of children with disabilities between 5-19 years, and three–fourth of those aged five, were not enrolled in any formal schooling. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated both, cause and consequence, of their exclusion in education.
In order to understand the unique challenges of children with disabilities (CWDs) during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, in partnership with Ektha Foundation, Prajaahita Foundation, Association for Persons with Disabilities (APD) and Rural Development Trust (RDT), conducted a rapid assessment of 164 students and their parents, and 50 teachers. Additionally, in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 civil society organisations (CSOs) and five government officials across four states — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
Education largely ‘inaccessible’ for children with disabilities
Across the four states, students and teachers described a shift to digital modes of teaching and learning. Previous studies had found a ‘digital divide’ — not having devices (smartphones, laptops, or tablets), or internet connectivity — as a major obstacle in access to education. In our sample too, we found WhatsApp and live video classes on platforms like Zoom were most commonly used. In addition, many students were asked to attend TV lessons.
“I have four children studying, all four of them have online classes, I don’t have the capacity to buy four smartphones,” said one parent from Andhra Pradesh.
Parents and students we spoke to reported difficulties in navigating smartphones and mobile apps to access classes. Similarly, teachers reported struggling with online modes of teaching, having received little training on the use of new technologies.
About 18 per cent of our sample reported that no classes had been conducted for them since the start of the pandemic. One household reported that their child was not allowed to attend lessons due to non-payment of fees. More pertinently, many others had stopped attending classes because they were “inaccessible” to them. Even among those who did attend classes regularly, 33 per cent said they were rarely or never able to understand the lessons, or complete their assignments. Major reasons were materials not available in appropriate formats, and thus inaccessible for students with different disabilities. For example, students with visual impairment said they didn’t have their braille books or a stylus, and struggled to follow live video classes if visuals (charts, presentations, or documents) were displayed. Similarly, television classes did not have sign language interpreters or subtitles, and were thus inaccessible for children with hearing impairment.
Disrupted well-being affects ability to learn
Over and above education, access to medication and health check-ups, a stable routine, and meaningful social interactions for children with disabilities were disrupted due to the pandemic. As for any child, the ability to meaningfully pursue education is determined by adequate nutrition, health, and care.
“My daughter is taking medicine for epilepsy. During the lockdown period, we didn’t have transportation so I went 5 kilometres by walk to the town and purchased medicine for my daughter,” explained a mother of a child with epilepsy.
A more urgent cause for concern was that 13 per cent of households said they had reduced the number of meals they ate per day. About 77 per cent of families from the sample had experienced a loss of job/incomes, 38 per cent incurred debt to cover household expenses or rent, and 90 per cent said they became dependent on government or NGO support/relief work to meet their basic needs during the pandemic. As a result, parents, especially mothers, reported household responsibilities having “significantly increased”, as had their stress levels.
Teachers and CSOs reported prioritising other activities over education
This study also tried to document experiences of support systems that deliver education to CWDs — teachers, CSOs and government officials involved in education and rehabilitation of CWDs.
Teachers we spoke to complained of reduced incomes or delays in salary payments, and increased workloads. Moreover, teachers and civil society organisations described a shift away from education and towards relief work. CSOs that were running their own residential schools and therapy centres had either temporarily stopped operations or shifted to online modes, wherever possible. Either way, they reported a drastic reduction in education and rehabilitation services.
Are government initiatives enough?
Finally, we made an earnest attempt to understand government initiatives in these four states that cater to the needs of CWDs. Government relief work, such as distribution of rations and disability pensions, were underway in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The government official from Tamil Nadu described specific measures taken to ensure access to medication for CWDs. Kerala had additionally initiated education-related programmes such as the ‘White board programme’, distribution of smartphones and other devices to students, and had consulted with national institutes to make information about the pandemic and educational materials accessible for CWDs.
The way forward
Despite the commendable steps taken, the inclusion of children with disabilities in education is a systemic issue that we have failed to address. Basic requirements such as appropriate language use, accessibility of teaching, learning materials, and availability of aids, which are secured under the RTE Act, 2009, are yet to be addressed, and were completely missed in modes of instruction used during the pandemic.
The need of the hour is for the Ministry of Education to understand needs of students with different disabilities in education, and address them through consultations with experts in the space such as National Institutes (such as the National Institute of Speech and Hearing, Kerala), CSOs, teachers, and parents of children with disabilities. Second, we must ensure continued access to schools and rehabilitation physically (if possible), or by making digital modes accessible, as per provisions of the RTE Act. In accordance with the latter, reliance on personal devices and high-speed internet should be reduced, for example by choosing pre-recorded lessons over live-video lessons, and providing multiple options of communication between students and teachers. To achieve this, there is a need to better support teachers and parents through appropriate training.
Crucially, due to causes of various disabilities, CWDs are more likely to belong to economically poorer households, and therefore more likely to be dependent on government support schemes. We, therefore, further demand for minimising disruptions in access to health, nutrition, early intervention and other support schemes as warranted under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act.
Nisha Vernekar is Lead in the area of Education at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Pooja Pandey is Project Fellow in the area of Education at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.