This pandemic has laid bare a lot of our weaknesses and strengths and deep seated problems. One of them is the impact felt by children particularly on those with disabilities who not only face health risks but disruption and marginalization. Over the years we have continued to neglect and recognise this highly excluded category of children. The pandemic has cast a light on the challenges faced by them and their parents.
A staggering 75 % of children with disabilities don’t attend schools in India. When combined with other structural inequalities like poverty, caste, gender, religion etc., children with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from education.
In the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 3% of children with disabilities have been reserved which makes them eligible for free and compulsory education between the age of 3-18 years (National Education Policy). However, either due to the lack of will or expertise, they still don’t have access to appropriate teaching tools, technology and schools that promote inclusivity.
Some progressive schools are negotiating inclusive learning independently. However, there are no Government provisions laid out to ensure any kind of distance, open or home based education for special children. We need to develop a coherent and comprehensive national focus towards technology by scaffolding it to a more humanized approach.
Teachers are using a combination of tele and video-conferencing, hard copying work packets, online curricula to keep children with special needs on track. However, this is very sporadic and in few cases.
None of the open education resources i.e. e-pathshala, DIKSHA, SWAYAM, have any beneficial platforms for children with special needs.
Technology is a great tool to help children to access information. The Central Institute of Educational Technology (CIET) has been involved in creating a platform for designing e-learning environments and assistive technologies for students with disabilities in the area of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, autism etc.
We do not have sufficient software and apps to cater to individualistic needs of children with special needs. They need human interface to transcend their learning experience.
National Boards across the country have recognised the need for special dispensation for these children by making important changes in their policies. These guidelines have specific parameters for implementation of inclusive learning, practices that have significant influence on the structure and culture of the school environment and are essentially for brick and mortar schools. They need infrastructure and assistive technologies with material that does not exist currently.
Mandatory guidelines have been put in place on inclusion and accommodation of children with disabilities which includes providing examination concessions, alterations in the syllabus, and inclusive teaching methodologies.
Schools have been working very hard to connect with families who require assistance for disabled children by conducting special classes, organizing helplines, integrating these learners into mainstream but in spite of all this, both teachers and parents are feeling equally challenged.
Parents have to fit into multiple roles with those of a Special educator, an Occupational, Speech and Behavioural therapist.
For children with screen intolerance, parents are endeavouring to sit alongside to help them connect with online classes. This is proving to be a great challenge because very few of them are screen ready.
Many children are suffering from severe mental health concerns, loneliness, depression, anxiety, especially children with cerebral palsy. Those with language disability may be impacted negatively due to difficulty in understanding the situation. In certain circumstances children with special needs are being abused and neglected.
Coping with anxiety and learning differences is a challenge on a normal day. In a routine that has been removed, without the support of any helping aids / para professionals creates great distress.
It is difficult to implement the IEP remotely.
Children with special needs are fixed to routines and people who they connect with specially autistic children who need regular Occupational therapeutic inputs as their sensory diet to enable them to be calm and connect with their environment.
Students on medication have struggled to get their review done by respective doctors. Their co morbid issues which require attention have remained untreated.
Schools are introducing assistive technologies that increase access to study material. Children with hearing impairments are being helped with talking text books, reading machines, computer with speech software, adequate number of sign language interceptors, transcription services, and a loop induction system.
To interact with children with special needs a positive attitude of all family members is essential. This will help to share and work together, building life skills, assist children in activities of daily living- eating, drinking, bathing, washing etc. This should be integrated in household work i.e. cleaning of utensils, laying the table, watering the plants, folding clothes etc. This will build in a sense of responsibility and participation.
In the event of schools not opening children on a regular basis, it is important to create individualized home programmes for parents which consist of various social, motor, academic and language resources.
Worksheets, behaviour modification plans, helplines will create a supportive system for parents who are going through emotional turmoil.
Creating counseling sessions for children and parents, tracking children in their regular teaching classes and following up with skill building sessions after classes and helping in remedial work will go a long way.
Children with special needs should interact and engage with family members on a deeper level. It will help to build on receptive and expressive language, create emotional bonding and sensitivity. This aspect of the pandemic must be worked upon as much as possible.