Lack of resources are affecting children with disabilities during this pandemic, as many face learning loss and a decrease in their social skills.
Six-year-old Kabir was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. Antara Roy Chowdhury, his mother had then given up her job to attend to him. “We came to know about Kabir’s autism quite early. Since then we enrolled him in a special school and made sure he got all the help that he needed,” she said. Antara added that Kabir was showing great signs of improvement when he started going to school. “He had started to speak more and could also solve mathematical equations that he couldn’t before,” she said. However, with the lockdown, his entire progress was hampered.
Like Kabir, there are many other children with disabilities who have been hit because of the pandemic. Children with disabilities struggle to keep up with online classes amid the pandemic. A survey done by Swabhiman, a community-based research organisation shows 45 per cent of children with neurological disabilities dropped out as they were unable to understand online classes.
Antara said that there has been an acute learning and reading loss that she has noticed in Kabir. She believes that Kabir has regressed, a common phenomenon in children with autism. “30 per cent learning loss in terms of reading, 50 per cent loss in terms of maths has happened this pandemic. For our children, there is no data. Nobody knows what the impact. As somebody who has witnessed this first hand, I can say that the loss is huge,” she said.
Children with disabilities have a different style of learning, their memory retention and learning rate is different as well. They are used to structured schedules, and any disruptions can lead to irritation. This makes online education quite a hard method for them to follow even if they do have access. For Antara, the biggest challenge was to make Kabir sit in front of the mobile. Kabir was not used to taking instructions from a device. For him to sit and understand what was being taught was difficult. “He didn’t know what the teachers were saying. He would often get up and refuse to come back. For him this wasn’t his classroom,” Antara said.
The Vidhi Centre of Legal Policy shows only 67 per cent attended any educational institutions in India before the lockdown hit. The other per cent had dropped out. This drop out rate increased to 45 percent during the lockdown.
The Government of India had released Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for the protection and safety of persons with disabilities during COVID-19. The guidelines, however, discusses providing critical facilities and assistance to people with disabilities. It does not talk about the educational needs of children with disabilities. No data from the government has been released about the dropout rates of children with disabilities either.
Other countries like Chile distributed 125,000 computers with internet connections to the children. In France, national media platforms like radio and television offered special programs for children with disabilities. These programs had sign language translators for the hearing impaired. They also sent audiobooks and braille to the visually impaired. No such programs have been implemented.
The Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled has been conducted online classes since the start of the pandemic. For them, the challenge is even more acute as most of their students are from poorer households. Guru Raghavan, the head of the department of The Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, said they are trying to get all their children to attend their classes, but they have not been successful. “These children only have one mobile phone in the entire household. That gets shared by everyone. We tried to give them smart tabs, but still, 40 per cent of the children didn’t attend classes,” he said.
The Samarthanam Trust also had to train its teachers to help them understand the digital world. They had no prior training. Aruna SK, a teacher from the Intellectually Challenged department said that they had to learn how to use WhatsApp and zoom, and then they had to train the children also. “The entire process took six months at least. By then, there was already so much of education loss,” she said.
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy survey showed 44 per cent of children with disabilities had no sign language interpreters during the educational webinars organised by the government, namely the PM e-Vidya program. 86 per cent of them complained that they did not know how to use the technology, while 81 per cent of the teachers said they did not have proper educational materials. There was also an acute shortage of braille.
Meanwhile, Antara is worried about when schools reopen. “I am not sure how the transition will happen. Kabir is now used to this. So that will be a huge challenge,” she said.
Psychologist Grace said that the government needs to open up in phases and not suddenly ask all children with disabilities to join classes.
Antara softly touches the photo album in front of her. It has pictures of Kabir when he was two years old. “I am trying to keep him as engaged as possible. I involve him in the kitchen as he is a foodie and I love to cook. So, yes we are trying to just survive,” she said with a laugh. Antara, along with other parents of children with disabilities are now hoping that the government comes up with some scheme, provide them with resources and invest more into their education to help the children cope with the loss they have faced due to the pandemic.