When we talk about equity and inclusion in education, there are few stories on how students with disabilities faced up to learning challenges in a pandemic. The ones that are there rightly point to how COVID-19 adversely impacted the education of children with special needs, especially students from rural areas. According to survey results released last year in December by a community-based organisation called Swabhiman, about 43 per cent of students with disabilities are planning to drop out of schools because of impediments caused by online education.
However, according to Subhash Chandra Vashishth, one of India's leading lawyers on disability rights and a specialist in accessibility, universal design and diversity inclusion, there is much to feel hopeful about a year-and-a-half since the schools shut. He points to three areas, when it comes to education of people with disabilities, which gained positive momentum since the pandemic struck. For one, when all schools went on to adopt an online mode of learning, children supported by the National Association for the Blind were already up to speed with screen-reading software on their computer systems. Many were already acclimatised to learning on mobile phones. "In this case, non-disabled students had problems adopting to the online mode, but blind children were far ahead of their non-disabled counterparts, subject to availability of devices, of course. They really benefitted from this entire experience. During this period, many students who are blind or have vision impairment passed their 12th grade successfully and also got enrolled into international courses. Some of them have even gone on to study in Oxford," says Vashishth.
Secondly, says Vashishth, companies like Google and Microsoft were competing with each other to provide more accessibility options in their systems and softwares, thanks to the advanced features already existing in Zoom. "In the beginning of the pandemic, during online meetings, Google and Micrcosoft received a lot of flak for not being inclusive enough in their features for remote working. Today, they are largely accessible. There is live transcription available in English (but not in other languages). But most people with disabilities feel most comfortable with Zoom. Some students who are blind have purchased the software for all their professional needs," Vashishth adds.
Thirdly, most of the smartphones produced and sold during the pandemic come with advanced accessibility features. "Enlargement of text for low vision people, screen-reading software by default, changing the size, contrast, font, speed and accent of speaking, so many changes have happened. Lot of work is being done in regional languages on the smartphones," says Vashishth, who is also on a central committee for developing standards for information and communications technology (ICT) for persons with disabilities. These standards are likely to be released in December. Once notified, these will be as updated rules under the The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, to be applicable across India.
There has been increasing recognition of the work being done to build technology solutions to aid better learning and communication for people with disabilities. Last month, Vashishth (48) won the Javed Abidi Public Policy award instituted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in partnership with Mphasis. While Vashishth was recognised for his work in design and diversity inclusion, 20-year-old Madhav Ajay Lavakare was awarded for developing an assistive technology device called TranscribeGlass for deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) individuals.
National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), run by the ministry of education, was also awarded by UNESCO for its innovative approach to building technology-enabled inclusive-learning material, specifically for their work on Indian sign language."We recognized sign language as a proper subject this year. There is a difference between recognising sign language as a subject and imparting education in sign language. We have given it a course code and recognised it like any other subject in the school curriculum which anyone can study. For this initiative, UNESCO recognised us. We were one of three countries in the world to be recognised so," says Prof Saroj Sharma, chairperson of NIOS. "For blind students, we introduced talking books in the pandemic and added more content for these audiobooks, apart from sign language videos," says Sharma.
Thakur Dutt Dhariyal, from the office of the chief commissioner for persons with disabilities, says accessibility to quality education is key. The law talks about 21 different kinds of disabilities. Any new programme or initiative introduced must be mindful of that. "Our access audit of these digital platforms often reveal they are not fully accessible and navigation is not easy," says Dhariyal, who is the executive director at the Centre for Accessibility in Built Environment Foundation. "And they have to be made cost-effective for students across urban and rural areas."