Bushra, a 38-year-old woman, finds it extremely hard to teach her 9-year-old boy with special needs. Akeel (name changed) suffers from a visual disability and finds it harder to focus during online classes.
"His eye-sight is very weak. He can't see the computer screen properly. I fear this might cause loss of vision as his eyes are very delicate," Bushra, a resident of Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, said.
The Coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected the education of children with special needs across the country. With schools been closed since the first nationwide lockdown last year, this has disrupted their academic calendar.
Akeel is one among thousands of specially-abled children suffering because of this mode of education due to the Covid induced lockdown. Samreen (name changed), a 12-year-old girl from the city outskirts, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy many years back. She had stopped attending online classes as she couldn't grab the pace of online education.
"Special kids need special attention. They can't be treated just like any other normal child. They need one-on-one conversation that does not happen in zoom classes," Samreen's mother, Aisha said.
Children with special needs are totally dependent on their teachers to guide their learning, this break from the class has proved much harder.
"My daughter did not cooperate in online classes. She used to show aggressive behaviour. Then I had to give up. Now I train her by myself as much as I can," Aisha added.
Most of the students who are bearing the brunt of the crisis live in rural areas. Many do not have devices to learn, connectivity issues, or some do not even have the means to afford them.
Being cut off from their teachers and nurturing learning environment, the children are in distress, prone to frequent outbursts and panic attacks. Many have lost the academic and therapeutic advancements they had made over the months.
Shafqat, a Srinagar based school for special kids, has been trying its best to provide an appropriate learning environment since the pandemic began. "We teach the students by using visual representations mostly. This generates a sense of interest among them upto a certain level," one of the teachers from the school said.
"But those having severe conditions are difficult to handle. Online education is not meant for such cases," she added.
According to one of the studies last year, persons with disabilities are less likely than others to complete education, and more likely to be excluded altogether from schooling. In the case of remote learning, students with disabilities are facing barriers to permit them to follow online school programs. As a result, many such students are being left behind, particularly students with intellectual disabilities. Furthermore, they are also negatively affected by other dimensions of school closures, including access to school meals and opportunities to engage in play and sports with their peers.
Last year, a survey conducted by Swabhiman, a community-based organisation working for the rights of persons with disabilities, stated that around 43 per cent of children with special needs across India might drop out of school due to problems faced in online mode.
The government's Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for protection and safety of persons with disabilities during COVID 19 were released last year, however, practical modes of providing educational services to children with disabilities during the pandemic were not put on the ground.
NGO's Being The Saviours
Many NGO's have, however, come forward and have been running special programs and courses to meet the demands in times of distress.
Satya Special School in Pondicherry has been developing and using content through digital devices for children with different disabilities. The special needs school has started the initiative of a digital lending library for the children in nearby villages. The apparatus or tablets are preloaded with sensory activities and speech therapy software to be used by the children with help from their mothers as primary instructors. The children's mothers also act as resource people or librarians, helping other mums to understand the software and its usage. These devices can operate without internet connections and lent out to the children on a rotational basis. The Public Health Centre in the village will act as the library.
Similarly, National Association for the Blind (NAB) in Delhi provided laptops to all its children from class 6, whereas with the help of a screen reader. They provided laptops and regularly recharged their data so that they do not have trouble paying for their internet packs.
These NGO's believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has cleared the country's position when it comes to 'inclusive education', but one has to ensure such special kids aren't left behind.