International Day for Persons with Disabilities: Mainstreaming the concerns of differently-abled in India’s digital education

December 02, 2020 4:51 PM

By enabling anytime, anywhere, access to lessons, e-learning, along with emerging technologies, have a tremendous potential to integrate the concerns of differently-abled children into mainstream education.

India’s education policies need to be revamped to reflect the commitment towards mainstreaming the differently-abled in letter and spirit.

By Rohit Manglik

Digital technology has emerged as a panacea for sustaining continuity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of the suspension of classroom teaching, e-learning has come to the rescue of students. By enabling anytime, anywhere, access to lessons, e-learning, along with emerging technologies, have a tremendous potential to integrate the concerns of differently-abled children into mainstream education.

Unfortunately, this goal of e-learning is yet to be achieved both inside and outside classrooms. According to the 2011 Census, only 57% of differently-abled males between the age of 5 and 19 years attend schools. The situation is grimmer for female students who are at a higher risk of discrimination owing to their disability as well as gender concerns.

A report by Disability Legislation Unit of Eastern India and Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) highlighted that 77% of differently-abled students, teachers and their parents could lag in learning as they were unable to access distance learning methods whereas 56.5% admitted to not attending classes regularly during the pandemic. The findings are contrary to the simplistic assumption that student-teacher connect without any discrimination present in classrooms, would work in favour of these students during the lockdown.

The findings indicate that India still has a long way to go to upgrade the infrastructure and adopt assisted technologies to foster an inclusive education system. E-learning leveraging multimedia technologies and video lectures will not only enable better comprehension for differently-abled but also makes lessons interactive and immersive for them. It is to be noted that differently-abled students form a broad group with varying levels of disabilities. These disabilities can be physical such as hearing-impaired, visually-impaired, or mental such as autism, dyslexia, among others. Technology is a great leveller to bridge inequity in access to education. But the kind of technology to be used varies on a case-to-case basis. For instance: audiobooks and adaptive keyboards will ensure seamless learning experience for orthopedically- challenged students. The text-to-speech software and voice recognition will be useful for visually-challenged students in listening to their lessons or taking assignments. Emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence along with Machine Learning can be leveraged to draw customized modules for these students to enable learning at their pace.

Edtech companies can play a pivotal role in devising curriculum and pedagogy catering to the needs of differently-abled. Relevant stakeholders such as parents, schools and medical practitioners should come together to chalk out a roadmap with innovative solutions such as after-school support in the form of online coaching, counselling for parents and wards and career support cells that will go a long way in bringing about a transformative change.

At a policy level, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act is a comprehensive policy that aims to ensure their integration into the mainstream. The National Education Policy 2020 also takes cognizance of the concerns of differently-abled and encourages home-based learning for them. It is to be noted that e-learning cannot replace school education even for differently-abled in the long-run. Moreover, this kind of learning requires a high capital investment into smart devices and for ensuring greater Internet bandwidth and penetration. The public-private collaboration for scaling up infrastructure, making curriculum available in alternative formats, and ensuring access to special instructors for these students is the way forward.

India’s education policies need to be revamped to reflect the commitment towards mainstreaming the differently-abled in letter and spirit. The National Policy on ICT in School Education must incorporate comprehensive guidelines on the accessibility of digital education, especially for differently-abled. Similarly, the RTE Act needs to be amended to lay down standards on inclusive digital education.

Another serious issue is the lack of sensitivity towards their concerns which can be addressed if disability education is incorporated right from the school curriculum level onwards on the lines of gender education.

And these steps won’t be fruitful alone. What we need as a society is a sense of collective conscience that nudges us positively towards improving the educational facilities for differently-abled students to give them a right to live with dignity and ensure their bright future.

(The author is CEO of EduGorilla. Views expressed are personal.)

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