COVID-19 has significantly affected the education of children worldwide. However, the major sector of the population which has been excluded in this regard is children with disabilities. While online learning quickly became the default solution globally because of school closures, it was not the most accessible choice for the nearly 29% of students in India currently with disabilities. Looking at the situation and needs of children with disabilities, it is also difficult to say whether we should teach them online or not and if yes how. Children with disabilities have different learning rate, memory, and retention than regular children. Further, often, they are accustomed to structured schedules and learning environments. The sudden unwarranted alterations in the learning process during the lockdown thus have increased the burden on the child as well as their parents.
While recently released Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for protection and safety of persons with disabilities during COVID-19 discusses providing critical facilities and assistance to people with disabilities, it has not taken into consideration the educational needs of children with disabilities. There are no provisions laid to ensure any kind of distance, open, or home-based education for children. The pandemic thus calls for a solution which will enable the inclusion of all children by building a common base of education through technology-based learning.
The crisis appears to rely heavily on technology for meeting educational needs. While this might be a good option for some developed country, these tools are not accessible to most learners with disabilities in India, especially to those with complex learning needs, those with poor households, and those in remote areas. Further, tools such as online learning portals may lack the basic and necessary accessibility features to make them usable for children with disabilities.
Limited internet access may equally hinder the learning process. In addition, children with special needs are sensitive to changes in routine and need a teacher or significant people support to work and learn independently through technology. Another important hurdle is that most teachers, because of their lack of ICT skills and knowledge, are not ready for online teaching ensuring engagement of the student, especially those with disabilities. Currently, no data is available on digital skills of special education teachers' in India.
Children with disabilities need extra support, an individualized approach, and modified lessons to continue learning at home. In addition, the online learning system should focus on removing obstacles to focus for students with attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; audio elements should provide subtitle for those who have hearing deficits, improve accessibility to text for learning disabilities, provide e-learning materials in different languages, and cater to the memory impairment.
It is the communal responsibility of governments, teachers, parents, and caregivers to lessen the educational disparity students with disabilities are facing, notably in times of catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic. The conditions that affect access to education including policy, legislation, finance, human resources, and data should be explored at earliest to guarantee the delivery of systematic and long-term solutions. There should be uniform guidelines on how to provide education to such students in a virtual network setting. The COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reflect on how we can plan educational system of the country to be inclusive of children with disabilities.
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