Alfey, aged six-and-a-half, is in front of the television at his home in Kochi, keenly watching a teacher on the screen. ‘Aana’ (elephant), the teacher says. ‘Aana’, he repeats after her. She raises her hands and he raises his. They sing together, standing on either side of the screen.
To Alfey, who has never been interested in television even to watch cartoons, this, his parents noted, was a huge change. The child, who was diagnosed with hypothalamic glioma (a rare tumour in young children) and has issues with sight, speech and bone age (bone maturity), appears to be enjoying the virtual classes for students, initiated by the Kerala government.
There have been comments for and against the move for virtual classes, when it comes to children with disabilities. Parents, Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), psychologists and experts have differing opinions.
“It has proven to be very useful for Alfey at a time when even the therapies had stopped with the COVID-19 lockdown for several weeks. Even if the lockdown has relaxed, kids like Alfey have little immunity, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to expose him much,” says Deepa, Alfey’s mother.
In the video that she shared, Alfey is seen responding excitedly to the virtual class for Class I. His father Nibin says that Alfey had found it difficult to cope at school – they have tried regular schools and special schools. But, he was responding to these videos, when the teachers adopted a pleasant and patient tone. Nibin adds that he hopes these classes will continue even after the pandemic is over.
Rakesh Pai, President of the Kanivu Pain and Palliative Care Society, an NGO in Ernakulam that provides home care to people with disability, says that there are other parents who have similar stories to tell. Bevan, a 15-year-old child with speech disability and also cannot walk, loves music and would sit and watch the online classes where the teachers sing a lot, says his mother Sindhu.
However, not all children with disabilities can afford to be in front of a screen for a long time. There are disabilities of different kinds -- physical, intellectual and learning -- and there should be separate strategies for each of these groups, says Seema Lal, co-founder of the NGO Together We Can. It is an advocacy group based in Kochi, which addresses the needs of children with disabilities.
“Already the education system was not inclusive enough of children with disabilities. The divide has only increased when the system has now switched to online media,” says Seema, who is also a psychologist and special educator.
She says that the shift has been too hasty and there should have been proper planning before this. “There should have been separate meetings held with stakeholders of each different age group, considering the diversity of children with disabilities," she points out.
Seema says that the parents and the children should have been prepared for this. Earlier, the use of smart phones was recommended but now it’s the reverse.
The NGO had sent a petition to the Chief Minister, highlighting the issue. "Let us not hurry to 'reopen' schools online without heed to the mental health effects of the same on children," the petition says. It asks the government to 'set some basic minimum guidelines and safety protocols' in place to safeguard the right of the child to both emotional and social health.
The petition also advocates the use of pre-recorded videos or Powerpoint presentations instead of live sessions.
This is a suggestion that's now being implemented by the Samagra Shiksha Kerala (SSK), a comprehensive programme for school education by the government. “We are adapting study material for six categories of disabilities – hearing disability, visual disability, autism, cerebral palsy, specific learning disability and intellectual disability. We have got resource persons to record the material on mobile phones, so that it will be in a smaller size and can be transferred to parents of children easily. The material would be approved by an expert group at the state level and the SCERT (State Council of Education Research and Training),” says Sooja, State Programme Officer of Inclusive Education, SSK.
The material will be uploaded on Telegram and WhatsApp groups of parents and a YouTube channel called White Board SSK. “The materials will also be available at block resource centres and therapy centres with the material further adapted for specific children. There will also be expert talks held for parents. Children, teachers and parents will be able to communicate and worksheets will be prepared for the kids,” Sooja says.
The National Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (NIPMR) has also been conducting online activities but not just on academics. “We have been having sessions on daily household activities and the precautions to take during COVID-19. From the third day of the lockdown, we have been engaging with parents on WhatsApp groups and giving instructions on the activities that the kids (with disabilities like autism) could engage in. The parents are to document every activity,” says Chandrababu, Joint Director, NIPMR.
Online counselling has also been implemented.