Online education and children with disabilities in Kashmir
How far is the current mode of education viable for students with different needs
In December-2019, Covid-19 began in Wuhan, China, and owing to it catastrophic effects it was declared a pandemic in March-2020 by the World Health Organisation. This pandemic has hit hard every aspect of life and has affected everyone disproportionately. Due to its viral and contagious behaviour it forced the closure of educational institutions throughout, including those working for children with disabilities. In Kashmir, the schools were closed in March, 2020 and were reopened for a very brief period in March 2021, followed by a subsequent lockdown in March,2021.
Consequently, the educational institutions resorted to an online mode of education to avoid any academic loss for the students. While this decision seemed a viable option, yet the vulnerable groups like children with disabilities and children enrolled in special schools were left out of such intervention strategies. This is particular for students with visual disabilities, developmental disabilities, sensory impairments, and children with learning disabilities.
The experiences are equally difficult for parents as they adjust to this new routine. While many authors have written upon the importance of using online mode of education to avoid academic losses, yet its implications for students with disabilities needs to be understood. Online education is defined as a tool which can aid in making the ‘teaching–learning process more student-centered, more innovative, and even more flexible’. It is defined as ‘learning experiences in synchronous or asynchronous environments using different devices (e.g., mobile phones, laptops, etc.) with internet. But, at the same time this pandemic exposed the ‘digital divide’ prevalent throughout, to which Kashmir is no exception.
There are various problems associated with online mode of education as it may not be a viable option for students with disabilities and their parents. The United Nations Policy Brief (2020) notes that students with disabilities are less likely to be benefitted by the distance learning teaching methods as they mostly rely on the face-to-face services. Similarly, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), 2020 mentions that during the times of crisis, children with disabilities are most likely to be excluded and left behind from basic services like education and health UNRWA,2020). Various authors have pointed their concern by noting that the closing of schools indicates loss of critical resources and special educators for children with disabilities, also their parents are less likely to be equipped with resources to maintain remote learning. In the same line, students who are not privileged and don’t have access to resources can suffer due to the digital modes of education.
For student with disabilities the ‘individual learning plan’ are regarded as the best way to create student centric learning. But, by and large this was compromised as we switched to online modes of education. If we discuss the problems associated with the online mode of education, one example here can be given of students with visual and sensory impairments. They face barriers to learning as they are dependant on Braille and Sign Language and communication through online mode becomes irrelevant. In the same manner children with behavioural issues need one to one session and may not benefit from online sessions. So, it is important to understand and determine the accessibility of online mode of education. By accessibility, I want to point towards the accessibility to smart phones, uninterrupted internet and other financial implications also. The established fact that schools in Kashmir are not inclusive is reverberated in the current form of education. While drafting this write-up, I had a discussion with staff members of different NGOs working for children with disabilities throughout Kashmir. The discussions pointed out towards the apathy of allied departments towards the students with disabilities. There are no accessible formats for children with disabilities that can help them in taking benefit from online classes. Some of the NGOs working in the said area do weekly home visits to ensure that children with disabilities do not suffer academic loss. But, without the lack of proper support these strategies cannot be sustainable.
Children with disabilities who are enrolled in special schools are not able to cope up with the demands of online ways of teaching. The current system of education has not considered the concerns of young children with disabilities who are enrolled in different special schools. Students with different disabilities like Down’s Syndrome, Autism, learning disabilities, Hearing and visual Impairment have been left out while resorting to use of online mode of education. This category of students is not able to fully benefit from this mode of education and thus they may lag. This pandemic is not going to end any time soon, so the mainstream population has devised ways and means to adapt and adjust accordingly. So, the concerns of students with disabilities particularly young students with disabilities should be taken into consideration. But, at the same time it is imperative to understand that if used in an accessible manner, the online mode of education can be a promising tool for the development of students with disabilities.
The author has a Ph.D in Social Work
(By Greater Kashmir)