Many students with disabilities struggling with e-education, NGOs call for more accessible approach

Uzmi Athar

New Delhi, Jun 21 (PTI) Neha sharma (name changed), who suffers from cerebral palsy, has been unable to interact with her teachers online for sometime now.

She says there are days that she doesn't understand much of what go on in her e-classroom and has to mostly rely on her classmates' notes for studying.

“I personally am able to access all my classes and assignments but it is not the same. I am still able to manage somehow but what about those who don't seek help?' the 30-year-old MA student said.

The lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic in March prompted schools and colleges to move to the virtual world for teaching and learning activities. However, many experts say the digital divide in the country may turn online classes into an operational nightmare.

As per official statistics, there are over 35 crore students in the country. However, it is not clear as to how many of them have access to digital devices and Internet.

Saundarya Rathi (name changed), a deaf student, stressed on improvement of facilities.

“A sign language interpreter should be provided if there is a deaf student who is a sign language user. Please ask the deaf student of his/her preference of interpreter. Check ISLRTC (Indian Sign Language Research And Training Centre) or Interpreting associations for requesting interpreting services. As well, ask the deaf student to see what other facilities he/she may need (like a note-taker),” the 42-year-old LLB student said.

Ravi Kumar (name changed), a student with multiple disabilities studying in Bangalore, raised the issue of people who wear prosthetic limbs and cannot type or use the laptop as effectively as others.

The 19-year-old pointed out that the shift to online mode of education has been very tough to adapt to for most students with disabilities.

'Since there are no specific guidelines in this regard, it is even harder to advocate for the same with universities,' he said.

NGOs working with people with disabilities have also expressed concern over the issues faced by students in online-education.

Akhila Sivadas, executive director at the Centre for Advocacy and Research, a non-profit organisation, said the government needs to provide education that is accessible to students with disabilities.

'Clearly we are living in times when the government has to walk and talk. This implies that in accordance with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act,   provide online education that is accessible to students with disabilities and shaped in consultation and delivered in collaboration with disabled people's organizations and networks,' said Sivadas.

Shameer Rishad, convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation, said the government needs to understand the diversity in disability.

'There are 21 different disabilities each with their specific needs which need to be allocated the due reasonable accommodation. Secondly, I feel that whenever any decision is being taken, consulting the disabled community is an absolute must,' he said.

In the case of education, he said students with different disabilities need to be consulted before making any decision or drafting any policy which will inherently effect their future.

Also, one must remember that online education is for here to stay, so there shouldn't be any 'shortcuts'.

'If we are doing something from start, we'd better do it right,' he said.

Arman Ali, executive director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), said there is a huge digital divide that exists in India from the perspective of students with disabilities in particular students with visual impairment.

'If you look in the context of semi-urban and rural areas. Sixty-nine per cent of the disabled population lives in rural areas. What is the infrastructure available? Digital or e-education doesn't give a level playing ground to the persons with disabilities. E-education is limited to metro cities and urban areas. How many institutions have a fully functional computer lab? And even if they have one they don't have teachers,' he asked.

Elaborating further, Ali said disabled people are also economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to buy computers, smartphones, tablets etc.

'Those who have smartphones with internet availability are not aware of the various resources available online for them. Even if they are aware, parents are not well trained or equipped to teach their disabled children,' he said.

He said implementation of e-education requires a more comprehensive approach and very carefully orchestrated planning for the children with disabilities not a 'band-aid solution'.

'Students with disabilities must be made aware of all the options and the range of choices of e-education available to them in an accessible manner. From the use of community radio to assistive technology, accessible digital technology, sign language interpretation, video conferencing facility, and so on and so forth,' he said. PTI UZM SMN SMN