Board exams are deeply stressful for school students and parents alike. Especially in Macaulay’s India where board exam marks are considered the deciding factor in a young person’s life.
Imagine, then, the stress and pain of disabled students – whether wheelchair-bound, autistic, spastic or those with other physical disabilities. The pressure to physically sit down for the Class 10 and 12 board exams under the cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic, whose numbers are showing alarming rise again, is overwhelming to say the least.
The trauma of putting students like my son, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, and his classmates with varying degrees of learning and intellectual disabilities like autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) through examinations is daunting.
In a couple of months, special students will have to be shepherded to far-flung centres across the city limits in India, with little accessibility. They will have to wear face masks and likely won’t have the assistance of scribes (amanuensis), who would be too frightened to physically come and write for them. Disabled students are faced with an agony that needs to be acknowledged by the deciding authorities with compassion.
An unprecedented pandemic in the 21st century requires us to be innovative and encompass various needs. Leaders must take special initiatives to help the disadvantaged and weaker sections of the student community.
The NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) is a board founded by the Ministry of Education (formerly, the Ministry of Human Resource Development). It is one of the largest open systems in the world, with enrollments of nearly 30 lakh students across the country. Its noble aim is to help children with economic and special needs secure a school education.
The NIOS, which often shadows the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in its decisions, could well help disabled students taking the board exams scheduled from June onwards, after the CBSE’s date sheet is out. However, this time around, while the CBSE reduced its syllabus, the NIOS board did not.
That is why it is imperative to promote disabled learners during the pandemic instead of making them go through the exams. This is a plea to help students with special needs who are due to take the senior secondary board exams with the assistance of scribes/readers.
Dangers and difficulties
Owing to their disabilities, students will need to sit close to their scribes to take the exam. The scribes will have to sit very close to the students with speech and vocalising issues to listen and write the exams. Social distancing is compromised by this and puts both the special students and scribes at risk.
Holding exams in centres will mean that autistic people will have to wear masks for over three hours while sitting for the exam. Most suffer from severe sensory issues. Masks lead to rise in anxiety levels, claustrophobia and sensory distress, which are already high owing to exam pressures.
Many special students with developmental disorders also have comorbidity problems that make them vulnerable to infections easily than the generally healthy members of the population.
Parents of scribes are rightfully concerned about allowing their children to perform amanuensis duties owing to the pandemic hazards.
As our petition says, given the flare in Covid infection, we request the highest authorities, including the education minister, to please use their good offices to promote disabled learners. They can be promoted on the basis of their Tutor Marked Assignments (TMA) and practical board examination marks, which were already awarded to the students in 2020.
This will both protect these students, under the disability law provisions, and also help them tide over the ongoing health crisis caused by Covid-19.
A job for authorities
The NIOS board is driven by its objective of helping vulnerable students and we request it to show care at this unprecedented time. One of the reasons many of us parents struggle to put our children through special learning boards is because most post-school skill-based programmes demand a school passing certificate for disabled adults.
Under the cloud of the pandemic, my son and many like him have braved and gone along with online classes, and found it challenging to learn without physical and visual stimuli of a regular classroom. Parth had to undergo four muscle surgeries that were daunting and painful since he was nine years old. A special child has a right to barrier-free education and opportunities as much as any other student.
However, making disabled learners write exams in different centres with little or no disability support features, instead of promoting them under a global health threat, seems to be the last straw that will injure the final few weeks of their school life.
This is a struggle that is both mentally and physically draining for parents like me. That is why we have raised a petition on change.org to promote disabled learners during the pandemic instead of making them go through the exams.
The author is an electrical engineer working in Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)