The Digital Education Policy for Children With Disabilities Is Exclusion in the Name of Inclusion

None of the digital initiatives or guidelines mention, even in a single sentence, making interactive online classes accessible for disabled children.

Listen to this article:

Time and again, people with disabilities have been used as scapegoats by the current political regime to showcase benevolence and score vanity points by evoking emotions of sympathy and charity amongst the larger gullible Indian population. Whether it is by propagating stigmatising terminology such as divyangjan, abruptly deciding to bestow the title on a whim without consulting the community or the tokenism which has started to happen every Republic Day when an Indian Sign Language (ISL) tableau is erected on the television to showcase the so-called inclusive mindset of the government, this has been the case.

Is there something wrong with the word disability? Why then shun it and change it to divyangjan, a word which associates a role of the divine with a person’s disability. Why do we not have ISL interpreters at all government events or important announcements? The answer is simple: inclusion is an illusion created by this administration, to be bent and used as a photo-op for self-promotion. As part of the illusion, it is forbidden to actually address the specific needs of people with disabilities through a rights-based approach.

Another such attempt at self-gratification has been made by the government by devising a charity-oriented digital education policy for children with ‘special needs’. A friendly bureaucrat from the Ministry of Education (MoE) had sent us the most recent 148-page guidelines titled ‘Guidelines for the Development of E-Content for Children with Disabilities’ (E-Content Guidelines) for an honest review. This was because Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) had been a part of the initial consultations, but due to my intense line of questioning during the first meeting, we were dropped from the ‘consultative’ process. The e-content guidelines gave me an opportunity to jump down the rabbit hole and review the document holistically, looking at all aspects of the digital education programme vis-à-vis disability.

Representative image of a teacher taking an online class. Photo: PTI

At the outset, it is evident that the guidelines, formulated by ‘experts’, have not been written to bridge the digital divide. In a nutshell, the document outlines how accessible content should be made for children with disabilities and nothing more. This itself is the first point of exclusion, as a survey done by Learning Spiral, an online examination solution provider, shows that over 50% of all Indian children living in rural and urban settings don’t have access to the Internet.

The objective behind writing this piece is not to comment on the primary aspect of exclusion, which is the lack of access to the Internet. It is to point out how e-content guidelines, read in the context of the larger PM eVidya programme, are going to exclude even those disabled children who have access to the Internet. Also, focusing only on the creation of e-content without a plan to make active online classes accessible will further marginalise disabled children and deepen the divide of the disabled community from the mainstream.

Also read: Why Aren’t Enough Students From Tribal Communities Receiving the National Overseas Scholarship?

Digital education initiatives for the disabled community

To understand the vastness of the digital education programme of the government or the PM eVidya initiative, we need to go through pages three to six of the e-content guidelines, where 13 different digital educational initiatives have been laid down. Further adding to the confusion, there are two additional documents which supplement the most recent e-content guidelines, which are the more general PRAGYATA guidelines and guidelines for development of e-content for school and teacher education version 3, which serve as an evaluation tool to assist with the creation of content.

PRAGYATA guidelines the vaguest document of all talks about the three modes of digital education: i) online mode; ii) partially online mode or passive learning methods, which are content-dependent rather than interaction-based; and iii) offline mode, which covers the use of television and radio to relay education to the masses.

Having gone through all the digital initiatives/guidelines, it is hard to believe that there is no mention, not even a single sentence, about making interactive online classes accessible for disabled children. For the three modes of digital education, only guidelines about how to create e-content have been developed. The content is still under development. Further, these are only applicable for the ‘partially online mode’ of learning.

The only option that is made accessible through the e-content guidelines is the passive style of study which is based on content and not face-to-face interaction of the student and teacher. This is extremely harmful to disabled children, as excluding them from an active classroom setting would affect their learning ability, social skills, mental and emotional well-being.

E-content is supposed to supplement the education of the child as it is a passive mode of learning with limited to no interaction. In the current scenario, due to a lack of guidelines on making interactive online classes accessible, there lies a grave threat that teachers will identify students with disabilities and push them towards accessible e-content rather than teaching them in an inclusive environment along with their peers.

Although the e-content guidelines mention 13 different major digital education initiatives of the government which cater to different levels of study, it nowhere expressly mentions that it will be applicable to all 13 platforms. The focus of the document is solely on the DIKSHA platform and this specific platform is catering only to classes I to XII. By not covering the other 12 digital initiatives and focusing only on the DIKSHA portal, the digital education programme of the country is creating a box within a box and dubbing it to be inclusive. This is literally the very image of exclusion: disabled folks are not welcome to the other platforms, please only use the DIKSHA portal!

Representative image. Photo: LCCR/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

Non-inclusive evaluation tools

To evaluate the developed content, the e-content guidelines rely on user feedback as a key evaluation tool. After going through the checklist, which is part of the guidelines for development of e-content for school and teacher education version 3, various lists have been created for different evaluators who are students, teachers, and administrators. However, there is no mention of ‘disability’ or ‘accessibility measures’ which the content is supposed to have mentioned in the checklist.

By not having a check explicitly for accessibility of content, there is a higher chance that content that is inaccessible will pass through. In my view, accessibility components need to explicitly be a part of the checklist. Let us explore an example of what may happen without it. The DIKSHA platform, though created specifically for disabled children, allows users are both children with and without disabilities. When all children test the content through the current non-inclusive checklist, content that is well designed but not accessible will receive a high approval rating. With no accessibility-specific checklist, disabled children will not have a way to pinpoint their specific issue with the content in question.

The e-content guidelines focus on capturing metadata for accessibility. This is done so that the DIKSHA platform can suggest content to children. However, by only focusing on accessibility of content and not addressing the accessibility of online classes or offline modes of digital education such as television or radio, the e-content guidelines are catering to a small segment of the disabled population. This population perhaps already has access to make do with content that is internationally available since they can already access the Internet.

Also read: Interview | Mahima Bhalla on Why We Need to Shift From ‘Special’ To Inclusive Education

Since the e-content guidelines specifically mention DIKSHA and there lies an ambiguity about which platforms these guidelines will apply to, disabled children are being pushed towards a single option. With no other mode of digital education being accessible, there is a greater chance that the very content which is created to empower disabled children and is dubbed as their saviour will only further marginalise them by excluding them from the mainstream form of live interactive one-on-one, teacher facilitated-style education.

I would recommend that the guidelines be made applicable not just to the content on the DIKSHA portal but to all content that is developed by different stakeholders. The experts working with the Ministry of Education should also work on developing standard operating procedures on how the content will be passively used as a supplement, to assist in the education of a child with disabilities.

These procedures should train teachers in using the content only as a supplement and not as an alternate to the child’s education. The parameters which are part of the checklists used by various stakeholders for evaluation of the accessibility of e-content needs to have disability-specific checks so that the person evaluating the content can pinpoint various inaccessible features.

The strongest recommendation would be that the MoE should develop guidelines and standard operating procedures for making online interactive classes accessible so that students with disabilities can exercise their right to education equally with their peers and they are not pigeon-holed into relying on e-content as the sole accessible method of learning.

Shameer Rishad is the Convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF). He can be reached on twitter @RishadShameer.