Since March, we have haphazardly shifted our lives online. Whether it is work from home for the corporates or the educational technology (EdTech) platforms for children, a lot of our activities are now done virtually. This has its benefits – the comfort of working from home, no time consumed in travelling, increased productivity and most importantly, keeping safe in this environment. However, it is safe to assume that it is not equally accessible to everyone.
Those familiar with societal dynamics know how the intersectionalities of class, caste, gender, religion, linguistics, region and ableism play a fundamental role in access to all resources. If we add access to and knowledge of online tools to all of this, the divide just gets bigger. In this article, we try to look at the exclusionary nature of virtual learning through the lens of children with special needs (CWSN).
According to census reports, there are approximately 2.68 crore persons with disabilities in India, i.e. 2.21% of the total population. Many global estimates, in fact, reveal that it is a gross underestimation, and the number could be as high as 18% of the total population. However, despite being a significant part of our population, their concerns are rarely brought to light.
CWSN also face these issues. While they are a considerable chunk of the student community, they are often ignored. The State of Education Report for India 2019 states that there are 7,864,636 children with disabilities in India. Out of these, 61% aged between 5 and 19 were attending educational institutions. But when classes shifted online, logistics and mechanisms were looked at without concern about whether they are CWSN-friendly. As a result, reports show that children with special needs and their parents are finding it difficult to cope with this sudden shift to the online mode. Further, parents of children with hearing, speech and intellectual disabilities are having a hard time helping their kids with assignments and activities at home, in the absence of special educators.
CWSN are disadvantaged even under normal circumstances. Their illiteracy rate stands at 45%, much more than the general average of 26%. Their enrolment rates in schools have increased over the years, but still remain much lower than the national average, implying that they are the largest out-of-school segment with the highest dropout rates. One of the reasons for their low enrolment rates is that their commute to schools is arduous due to inaccessible terrain. Thus, one might think that virtual learning would overcome that barrier and result in better education for them. However, this is not so. Just like classroom transactions, virtual classes have also remained exclusionary in nature for them.
Parents of CWSN have peculiar problems. Since the institutions have done so little to accommodate them, e-learning has shifted the entire burden of education on the individual and their parents. There are diverse conditions that come under CWSN, and all children are being excluded due to different reasons.
First, sending over assignments and notes via email or WhatsApp is not conducive for such students. Especially since special educators cannot come home, parents are struggling way more than they should. Juggling this with work from home has constantly been becoming a nightmare. Every CWSN has an individualised educational plan specially made for them, but these plans are not being followed in the online classes. For the visually impaired, braille documents are not easily accessible. It is not such a script that can be taught virtually. The hearing-impaired cannot attend zoom classes. Also, in our country, most of the families of the hearing-impaired do not know sign language. They are facing particular difficulties in communicating with their kids as well without the presence of a special teacher. In the case of many autistic children, making them sit in front of a laptop continuously is in itself a challenge, making them listen and learn is an almost impossible task.
Having access to electronic devices, assistive technologies and the Internet is crucial for online education; something which a majority of disabled children do not have. Further, a considerable number of CWSN study in government or special schools. For the longest time, government schools did not transition to virtual classes. Even after the SWAYAM classes started (and were aired on DD channels), they did not take into consideration the needs of CWSN. No sign language is used, nor are accessible documents provided.
Virtual learning has only reached out to those children who have good financial resources (enough to own a mobile phone or other such gadgets). Virtual learning continues to be gendered (reports suggest that girls can access the internet only half as many times as boys) and also based on hyper-normative assumptions of being able-bodied. This implies that the challenges for CWSN in India are not just because of their impairments. It gets further aggravated according to the different social categories of caste, class, gender and region.
Meanwhile, the government has consistently failed to cater to the needs of the disabled population, despite running campaigns like the Accessible India Campaign and passing the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. Government’s annual budget has shown an increasing trend for autonomous bodies since 2016-17. However, the allocation of funds for the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities has continued to decline. The share of allocation for persons with disabilities fell from 1.08% in 2016-17 to 0.98% in 2017-18.
Allocation of funds for the social sector has seen a decline over the years, especially in the education sector. Reduction in educational funds deeply affects the education of children with disabilities. Moreover, there is no specific allocation for school going CWSN, which seems to make their issues invisible to our budget allocators.
Both MHRD and MSJE are tasked with the education and rehabilitation of CWSN, which only makes matters worse for CWSN. So far, neither MHRD nor MSJE have taken cognisance of the learning needs of CWSN and issued any directives for educational institutions to make virtual learning inclusive. Allocation of funds, especially for education, is not done department wise, which makes the data for CWSN invisible.
Becoming more inclusive
Online learning is indispensable, but its limitations have to be resolved, and soon. We cannot let gaps to come in the education of different children due to reasons beyond their control. All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE) has noted how digital learning is going to widen the gap between the affluent and the marginalised. Javed Abidi Foundation, working for disability rights, has recently submitted a 20-point recommendation letter for the MHRD to ensure proper guideless to be put in place, keeping in mind the learning needs of CWSN.
The pandemic has shown us the importance of solidarity for our sustenance. We need to learn and implement that in our education system, and look to become more inclusive and responsive. Ed-tech platforms are here to stay. Therefore, making virtual space inclusive is extremely crucial to ensure social justice, equality and equity for the future generations.
Nikhita Jindal is a PhD Scholar, Christ University, Bengaluru. Shreya Urvashi is a PhD Scholar, TISS, Mumbai.