The COVID-19 pandemic has amply made clear how important digital connectivity is, and also how the digital divide continues to persist and disadvantage the marginalised the most. In yet another example of this, a recent study has found that a significant proportion of children with disabilities were excluded from education during the pandemic because of the digital divide.
The study revealed that only 62% of the children with disabilities had access to online classes, that too irregularly, compared to 92% before COVID-19. Of these, 33% were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ able to understand lessons or finish assignments. It is significant that the data, collected by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in association with Ektha Foundation, Prajaahitha and the Association for People with Disability, was from September and October 2020, around 5-6 months into the pandemic. And yet, the exclusion remained. Further, in 18% of the cases, no online classes were conducted in the first place.
The sample size, though small, consisted of 164 children with disabilities and their parents. The data was qualitative in nature, and involved in-depth telephonic or Zoom interviews. Apart from the kids, 50 teachers, 10 NGOs and five government officials from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were also interviewed and/or surveyed.
The biggest hurdle, researchers found, remained the unavailability and unaffordability of high-speed internet, and households with multiple children not having enough devices. Lack of technological know-how among students and parents, as well as inaccessibility of teaching-learning materials and instruction for the children with disability further exacerbated the exclusion.
In the latter case, some of the examples that emerged were the inaccessibility of material written on the blackboard or a presentation shared with a screen sharing option online for visually impaired children. Similarly, children with hearing impairment could not benefit from TV lessons as these neither had subtitles nor sign language interpreters. Many children on the autism spectrum or with learning disabilities found it hard to concentrate in online classes and were troubled by their routines being thrown out of gear.
In terms of routine, the disruptions were quite significant, and beyond the realm of academics as well. For instance, the number of children able to attend rehabilitation (healthcare, physiotherapy etc.) regularly during the pandemic reduced by over half – from 34% pre-COVID-19 to 16% during. And from 70% of those surveyed being able to participate in extracurricular activities during the pandemic, the numbers dropped to 17%.
Further, the social interaction that students would earlier access was largely missing – from 83% of them having it pre-pandemic to only 15% after. “This was especially true for older kids who had been living in accommodations and hostels independently. Forced to move back home due to the pandemic, they felt isolated in the household as well because most of the families and siblings did not use sign language. This increased their stress levels and affected mental health adversely,” revealed Nisha Vernekar, Team Lead working in the field of education at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
The pandemic put substantial economic stress on households, wherein 77% of those surveyed reported loss of job/income, 38% reported debt on expenses/rent, 2.4% reported death of breadwinner and 21% reported difficulty in accessing healthcare. Thirteen percent had also reduced the number of meals consumed. Further, 90% of the households were dependent on government and NGO support for their basic needs during the pandemic, and 76% parents said there was an increase in caregiving responsibilities which increased their stress and worsened mental health.
“One of the specific asks that parents had was that schools be reopened as soon as possible,” Nisha said. She added that this situation made painfully clear the importance of social security provisions for vulnerable families. “Children of families who are heavily dependent on social security schemes suffer most in such situations.” This situation was worsened because NGOs and Capacity Support Officers (CSOs) found their on ground operations gravely affected, lessening community outreach and hampering operations like running special schools and rehabilitation centres. Meanwhile, the government was more focused on emergency needs like health and nutrition, and not education, the study found.
In north Karnataka, for instance, a CSO told the researchers about a child who lost his life from malnutrition and neglect. His parents, who hadn’t had work in over six months, were forced to choose between him – who had disability – and their other child who did not. North Karnataka is a backward region where some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged populations reside, researchers said.
Teachers were also caught off guard by the pandemic, and they not only had to adapt to the online medium to teach, but were also suffering from delays in salaries or non-payment, and had the additional burden of COVID-19 relief work. In all states surveyed except Kerala, there was also a lack of training for teachers.
Sooraj S, Director of Kerala-based Prajaahitha, a disability rights organisation, revealed that they worked with parents, teachers as well as children with disabilities to teach them the technological know-how to access online classes. “Kudumbashrees played a major role too in ensuring that those with disabilities have a mobile phone if they cannot afford it. They also reached out to homes to see if children with disabilities needed anything,” Sooraj said.
“For teachers, initially the problem was also to ensure that all students had joined the Hangouts call. So, for the first half an hour of the class, they would just be calling each child individually to check the same. We helped them get comfortable with platforms as well,” he added.
With the findings of the research, some of the recommendations made emphasise the need to consult with parents and students on issues of accessibility and other challenges, providing support for teaching kids with specific disabilities, providing aids and assistive devices as per the Right to Education Act irrespective of the mode of instruction.
These would include using multiple ways of communication that allow for inclusion and two-way interaction between students and teachers. For instance, providing pre-recorded videos or TV lessons with subtitles or sign interpretations over live classes to mitigate issues of unavailability of high-speed internet, power cuts or lack of devices.
“The teaching and education materials should be made accessible – not just in classrooms, but wherever education is happening,” Nisha said.