Without the Right Tools, Students With Disabilities Struggle in Online Classes: Activists

A letter by an advocacy group to the Ministry of Social Justice says students with visual, hearing and learning disabilities are suffering during the lockdown.

New Delhi: While online classes are being conducted by many universities and academic institutions in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Javed Abidi Foundation has highlighted how these remain largely inaccessible to students with disabilities.

The Foundation has pointed out that 74,435 students with disabilities enrolled in universities across the country are not being able to attend these classes due to the lack of guidelines and absence of tools to facilitate students with visual, hearing or specific learning disabilities.

The Foundation said soon after the lockdown began on March 24, it held consultations to understand the specific needs of people with disabilities. Then on April 25, its convener Shameer Rishad wrote to the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) regarding the inaccessibility of online classes.

Set up in 2019 as a tribute to late disability rights activist Javed Abidi, the Foundation said it highlighted how several students with disabilities had pointed out the difficulties being faced by them in accessing online education during the lockdown.

It said students, particularly those with visual disabilities, were not able to access the study materials and the classes. “Some who were able to partially access classes said that it was only because they had help from their family. This was because assignments were sent to the students as scanned images. This could be a concern for people with learning disabilities as well who have difficulty reading.”

Furthermore, it added that “deaf students didn’t have access to the online classes itself as there was no sign language interpreter during the video calls. These students had also not been provided with transcripts. Most students were relying on notes which in some cases would take longer than a week to be collated and sent.”

Another major concern it highlighted was that many students did not have laptops, assistive technologies or internet access – all essential tools for accessing online education.

Ministry urged to ensure examination schedule, social distancing were not discriminatory

The JAF letter had also referred to how the examination schedule may discriminate further against students with disabilities.

It noted that “when students with disabilities do not have access to the study material or many of them do not even have access to the electronic devices to access the online classes, how will the students prepare for their examination?” It urged that the universities be asked to keep these challenges in mind while releasing the amended date sheets for examinations.

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The Foundation had also highlighted that while social distancing appears to be one of the main solutions to control the spread of COVID-19, “persons with certain disabilities cannot follow this standard operating procedure as they require assistance from caregivers on a day to day basis”. It therefore demanded that those with disabilities not be subjected to any kind of discrimination for not practicing social distancing.

Social justice ministry directed HRD ministry to issue advisory to all states/UTs

Following the JAF letter, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on April 29 directed the Ministry of Human Resource Development to issue an advisory to all states and union territories to provide equal opportunity to all students with disabilities.

The letter stated that these measures should be taken to “ensure that students with disabilities participate equally with others in online classes and also to take into consideration the plight of such students while finalising the examination schedule.”

The statement by the Foundation said it was now awaiting a response from the MHRD.

A 20-point guide to a disability-inclusive response

Earlier this month, the advocacy group also came out with a 20-point “Disability Inclusive Response for Educational Institutions” which provided recommendations for educational institutions to make their education inclusive for students with disabilities during these challenging times.

The Foundation also said that while after the lockdown, educational institutions may have to adapt to the “new normal”, such as remote learning, social distancing, this “new normal” would have to be non-discriminatory and inclusive to people with disabilities. It reminded them that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 mandates non-discrimination and accessible and inclusive education for people with disabilities.

Also read: COVID-19 Is Leading to a New Wave of Social Stigma

Relevant guidelines needed for students with disabilities in schools too

Meanwhile, Rishad while sharing data as per the “on how Census data further shows that 61% of the disabled children aged 5-19 years are enrolled in school” while as per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2015-2016), conducted by Ministry of Human Resource Development only a mere 74,435 students are enrolled in Universities across India, said: “With schools going online and with so many entrance exams getting postponed, there is also a need for relevant guidelines in that regard as well!”

Rishad also commented that in his address to the nation on May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about “Sabke Prati Samvedna”, which loosely translates to caring for everyone, and “Aatma-nirbharta” or self reliance. He said, “even though the government may want to take care of everyone the reality is that the invisible, who don’t raise their voices or who are not heard, fall through the cracks if they are not self-reliant.”