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India’s online classrooms are outdated for disabled kids. Covid just made it worse

Education for children with disability has mostly been seen from the point of access and hardly inclusion. But Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change that.

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School education for children with disabilities has always been at a crossroads. The coronavirus pandemic has made education models and regular classes shift abruptly to digital modes. Learners with disabilities, constituting a population of about 40 lakh in the age group of 5-19 years, according to Census 2011, have been disproportionately impacted by this disruption.

Even though the Narendra Modi government’s recently announced PM eVidya platform will cater to learners with visual and hearing impairment, there is no public information that addresses how digital education, including online classroom teaching, will generally be made accessible.

Similarly, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability (under the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare) has released Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for protection and safety of persons with disabilities during Covid-19, which talks about providing essential services and assistance to people with disabilities, but nowhere does it take into account the educational needs of children with disabilities. There are no provisions to ensure any kind of distance, open or home-based education for children.

Also read: Why 75% of India’s disabled kids never attend a school in their lifetime

Why does it matter?

Access to technology can assist persons with disabilities in getting better educational, socio-cultural and economic opportunities. Making digital education accessible, both from the perspective of infrastructure and design, is a binding international and domestic legal obligation.

Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires states to ensure that persons with disabilities can access information, communication and technology (ICT) systems. Section 42 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 directs governments to ensure that “all contents available in audio, print and electronic media are in accessible format”.

The problem

The manner in which digital education is being made accessible is outdated and uncoordinated. In 2012, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) published a National Policy on ICT in School Education, which is silent on universal design principles for digital education and does not refer to the most up-to-date Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that were released in 2018.

The MHRD policy itself does not find any mention in the set of recommendations released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2018 on making ICT accessible for persons with disabilities. Moreover, the inter-ministerial steering committee, proposed to be set up under the TRAI recommendations, does not include the MHRD, indicating that the question of accessibility of digital education is being addressed in silos.

Most telling of this fragmentation is the fact that the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) provides norms and standards only for physical infrastructure in schools. The ‘Schedule’ to the RTE Act simply states that teaching and learning equipment will be provided to each class as required, without considering that such equipment might have to be digital, and if digital, that it must be inclusive.

Also read: Modi govt’s draft education policy a disappointment for disabled kids, burdens parents

The solution

The first step is the need for a coordinated approach to inclusive education that makes universal accessibility norms an integral part of the content creation process rather than a supplementary exercise. The nodal ministry — the MHRD — should coordinate with the Ministry of Electronics and IT as well as the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability to devise standardised guidelines for digital education infrastructure for learners with disabilities that are in accordance with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. The next step will be to make these guidelines mandatory for all ICT service providers (public and private) of education.

There is also a pressing need to ensure adherence to the long overdue recommendation from TRAI (2008) to make all government websites accessible for persons with disabilities.

With respect to specific Acts and policies, the National Policy on ICT in School Education needs a review and update in order to develop comprehensive guidelines on the accessibility of digital education. Similarly, it is important to amend the Schedule to the RTE Act to include norms and standards on inclusive digital education that are applicable to schools. In addition, accessibility standards for ICT in education should be notified under Section 40 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act.

Also read: Disabled Indians can’t be afterthought in Covid. Disability secys needed in all ministries

Ways forward

The Covid-19 pandemic, which mandates social distancing and quarantine, has increased complexities for children with disabilities. While it has created unprecedented difficulties for humanity, it has also opened doors to introspect and innovate.

Education for children with disability has mostly been seen from the point of access and hardly inclusion. But Covid-19 could be an opportunity to enable this inclusion for all children by building common grounds in education through technology-based learning. Deploying e-learning methods can also assist special educators to reach many children simultaneously.

All of this is possible only when the Modi government takes an active interest in building technologies and capacities to make education truly inclusive and universal.

Towards a Post-Covid India is a briefing book with 25 legal reforms recommended by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Join a series of conversations — ‘Law with a Difference’ — on the book. ThePrint is the digital partner. Read all the articles here.

The author is Project Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

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