The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our education system in an unforeseen way. Children from the rural areas suffered most in terms of their education during this period, owing to a variety of reasons ranging from unavailability of resource materials and proper internet connection to dropping out of schools to support the financial burden on their family. In this blog we focus on education during the lockdown for children with special needs and disabilities across rural India.
For children living in urban settings, transition from offline to online classes was difficult and full of obstacles, it was much worse for rural areas where, at the start of the lockdown, the first priority was to get basic necessities such as adequate food, ration and medical care. In these times of uncertainty and distress, it was impossible to focus on education, basic welfare had to be prioritised.
It is evident that covid-19 has worsened the system for education of children but worst affected out of these are Children with Disabilities (CWDs) and Special Needs. It was observed that one-fourth of Children with Disabilities are between 5-19 years of age, and three-fourth of five-year-olds are not even enrolled in any formal schooling.
CWDs are likely to come from economically worse households with almost 72% of CWDs belonging to the rural areas of India . This makes accessibility to “e-education” even tougher.
A major challenge faced by the students and their caregivers was the financial stress faced by the families especially those which relied on government schemes, mid-day meal programme and similar schemes which used to enable families to access basic services. The financial stress leads to increased debt and in turn is responsible for higher stress levels across the household, impacting their mental health.
Impact of this stress has affected care given to the children with special needs and disabilities in the form of proper nutrition being provided, discontinuation of medical treatment and habilitation therapy which further may hinder the child’s ability to access education, especially in online format.
The rural areas of India do not have high speed internet services and even in areas where these services are available, the families cannot afford them. This has affected most of the children living in rural areas but gets especially hard-hitting for children with hearing, vision or speech impairment. Infrastructure to conduct online classes is lacking but for children with hearing or vision impairment it is worse – sign language interpretation and subtitles are required to attend online classes which schools or families of the students cannot afford. This creates a huge deficit in learning for these children which along with the financial stress on households, may lead to children dropping out of schools permanently.
Civil society organisations have reported a reduction in funds for education of children with disabilities since the start of the pandemic.
In a survey conducted by Swabhiman- State disability Information and Resource Centre, Bhubaneswar, it was observed that 77% of students would not be able to cope with the learning and eventually fall behind due to inability to access online classes. Majority of the parents of children with disabilities felt that teachers did not give attention to their children.
In the absence of interactive learning, teachers relied on parental engagement nevertheless, 76% of the mothers reported they did not know how to use the technology themselves. It was found that 86% of CWDs did not know to use the technology to attend online classes while 64% of children did not have laptops or smartphones to attend classes. The study emphasised the need for different formats of study material to be made available for children with disabilities.
Alarmingly, over 40% of disabled students planned to discontinue their education due to the obstacles faced during lockdown.
It needs to be considered that all children with disabilities cannot be put into a single category, the requirements for each kind of disability need to be correctly identified and accordingly, appropriate resource materials and facilities need to be provided. Children with intellectual disabilities require greater care, social interactions and a routine as part of their habilitation therapy which has not been provided by the majority of schools. While some teachers did make home visits, several communities did not allow teachers to enter households in fear of contracting the virus.
DIKSHA, a digital infrastructure for school education, an initiative by the ministry of education is a free and open sources platform for all learning material and online classes which can be accessed and downloaded by students and teachers. It has been essential during the COVID-19 period for students across all states of India but for children with vision impairment, the website does not have audio descriptions, making it unusable by such students. Need for accessibility on such government backed sites is crucial for all children to have equal access to education and further, to be a leading model for other websites to become disability friendly.
Understanding the need to include the larger public in this advocacy effort, Raindrops Foundation organised panel discussions and webinars during the Lockdown to spread awareness and highlight problems faced by disabled and special needs students in accessing their classes and exams. Raindrops launched an online advocacy campaign to make online teaching disability friendly and inclusive. Panel discussions and webinars helped in identifying key problem areas and their possible interventions.
Tapas Bharadwaj, Head of Inclusivity at Raindrops Foundation emphasised the need for concrete on ground action towards making our education system more inclusive for people with disabilities, such that when children with disabilities return back to schools and colleges, they do so in a more inclusive space where they can discover, learn and grow, where equal opportunities are provided to all. To do so, we need to incorporate the 5 A’s – Accessibility, Approachability, Affordability, Availability and Awareness into our education system.
Making online education inclusive for children with disabilities and impairments is important, the need for face-to-face interaction is essential and should be promoted as the aim of a robust education system is not only to educate children on textbook knowledge but to also provide them with skills and values required by the outside world.
Online classes need to have two-way interactions, subtitles and sign language interpretation should be accessible by all who require it.
As we set onto gradual re-opening of schools and colleges, it is necessary to identify children who have dropped out of schools due to inability to cope with online classes and ensure that further education is not lost. Social Distancing in schools needs to be taught and practised diligently, Children with low immunity need to be recognized and asked to continue with online classes to ensure that reopening is safe and successful for all. Education is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen and it needs to be ensured that everyone, irrespective of their caste, creed, background or religion can freely access it.
 UNESCO, 2019. N for Nose: State of the Education Report for India 2019 : Children with disabilities.
Available at: https://en.unesco.org/news/n-nose-state-education-report-india-2019-children-disabilities
 Kalyanpur, M., 2008. Equality, quality and quantity: challenges in inclusive education policy and service provision in India.. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 12(3), pp. 243-262.
 COVID-19 and Exclusion of Children with Disabilities in Education, VIDHI Centre for legal policy
 SWABHIMAN – State disability Information and Resource Centre, Bhubaneswar