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Why Is The Science Stream So Inaccessible To Visually Impaired Students In India?

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Extending the boundaries of science beyond traditional modes of teaching that rely heavily on sight will go a long way in ensuring that the dream of inclusive education is realised meaningfully. Anoushka Mathews explores further.

Fourteen-year-old Kartik Sawhney dreamt of pursuing an education in the sciences. He worked harder than his peers and spent extra hours on his lessons. His natural aptitude for science was matched by his dedication to perfection.

After completing his Class 10, he was denied a seat in the science stream. A childhood dream shattered, Kartik was dejected and disillusioned. However, he did not give up hope and continued to fight the system. NGOs came forward to support him, and campaigns were launched to help his cause. It was challenging indeed to convince the authorities that a blind student who feels inclined towards science should be encouraged and supported, rather than steered towards other disciplines like the arts. With little basis for depriving him of a science education, CBSE finally had to concede.

A wise decision, considering Kartik went on to score 95% in his board exams.

One would imagine this to be the happy ending to Kartik’s story. Unfortunately not! Pursuing his passion for science was going to be a harder task than he could have imagined (as if the subject wasn’t hard enough).

It was impossible to apply to premier engineering institutions in the country owing to the inaccessible test formats of the entrance exams. This was compounded by the unwillingness of the authorities to take accommodative measures to ensure accessibility. Having been denied permission to appear in the IIT-JEE competitive examination for three consecutive years, Kartik began applying to universities abroad. In March 2013, he was the recipient of a fully-funded scholarship to pursue a five-year engineering programme at Stanford University.

Blind students across the country are either implicitly or explicitly discouraged from studying higher levels of science. The paucity of role models and mentors from the sciences also tends to discourage blind students from continuing in the field. They have to constantly battle exclusionary attitudes that undermine their potential.

Most authorities delude themselves into believing that concessions and exemptions that discourage blind students from studying science are in the best interest of the student. Science is placed on a pedestal and conveniently kept out of reach of those without sight. In the process, what is forgotten is that science is not just a means to obtain degrees and lucrative, well-paying careers.

It is also a conversation with the universe and all that it contains.

Science is a tool that allows students to comprehend, explain and make sense of their surroundings. Additionally, it helps create well-rounded students who are capable of logical thinking and scientific reasoning. For students who are blind, who do not have a stream of visual information that they can rely on to make observations and inferences about the world, science offers the scope of bringing the universe within reach. The other senses need to be invoked and evoked in order for the study of science to become meaningful to those who are visually impaired or blind.

According to the 2013 Xavier’s Resource Center for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) Report by Sam Taraporewala:

A combination of fear, doubt, lack of knowledge, lack of teacher training skills, and resources have held STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) education for blind and low-vision students the world over, and similarly in India, hostage. They have combined to give the false verdict, ‘It is not possible!’ These views, over time, have become institutionalised as part of education systems. This, in turn, has had significant impact on lives and career choices of blind and low-vision persons. When a trend or an experience becomes part of collective social consciousness for a long time, imaginations assume the power of truths, relegating fact to the realm of fiction. It is critical to the success of blind students that educators help dispel misconceptions among sighted students as to what blind people are capable of.
One of the primary reasons for exclusion of blind students from the sciences is their inability to perform practicals. In the case of blind students, the practical component of science proves to be rather impractical.
Labs do not have technology that enables access, or devices that convert visual material into audio or tactile formats. The teachers and laboratory assistants also have little inclination to extend their imagination beyond the existing practices that prove tedious even for sighted students. Instead, authorities should focus their attention on evolving science assessment beyond standard practical formats. This will allow for inclusive lab spaces where students can use different modes of access to study concepts and conduct experiments.

Retrofitting lessons might not always be the best way out. For blind students to be able to compete with their sighted counterparts on an equal footing, teachers need to extend the boundaries of their syllabus and classroom beyond heavily sight-dependent methods. They must be diligent about providing students study materials in accessible formats such as braille, large print, digital, tactile, or audio.

Schools need to invest in assistive technology and teacher training and encourage teachers to come up with creative ways to make material accessible to blind students.

What schools require is fresh and non-visual thinking. They need to incorporate experiential and immersive learning—with planned visits to the field, museum, factories, etc. – into the curriculum. Adapting lessons for blind students also gives sighted students the opportunity to learn beyond sight. Current trends in pedagogy encourage practices that are student-centric. Teachers can no longer expect students to constantly adjust to classrooms. They too will have to make concerted efforts to understand and integrate the child’s needs and modes of learning.

Around the globe, there is a growing awareness about the need to make science accessible to the visually impaired and blind. There is an attempt to shift away from purely visual ways of learning and studying science.

The internet is a treasure trove of resources on alternate modes of approaching visual content and curriculum. There are plenty of software available that perform a range of tasks, that make almost any kind of content accessible to those who are blind. Teachers across the world are beginning to see value in adopting imaginative and inclusive methods of teaching science that deviate from traditional models.

In India too, we can find this change in pockets, with Devnar school in Hyderabad pioneering innovative pedagogic practices for teaching science to visually impaired and blind students.

We must recognise teaching practices that envisage accessible science lessons and educational boards must adopt these and disseminate them to schools lacking in imagination.

XRCVC too has taken initiatives to compensate for the lack of training that exists among teachers and educators. They offer training courses aimed at building skilled human resources in the area of STEM education for blind students, apart from hosting a teaching resource library.

Additionally, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan attempts to uphold the Right to Education Act. It promises to supply accessible textbooks and teaching-learning resources to blind and low-vision students enrolled in schools. This could prove to be excessively cost-heavy, with foreseeable administrative bottlenecks preventing effective implementation.

The Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, guarantees blind persons reservations in educational institutions as well as workplaces. Institutions need to gear themselves to not only admit, but also adapt to the varying needs of diverse student bodies.

Institutions must stimulate intellectual growth among all students equally. Education has the power to empower. It has the ability to create level playing fields for all kinds of students. Students must not have to rely on their personal initiatives and support from civil society in order to pursue science.

Having to wage a daily war against inaccessible formats and inflexible thinking, robs students of time, energy, and confidence. It tends to convert small life choices into dramatic life moments. However, teachers and students must face these challenges head-on. Much like science, trial and error will surely give results in time.

This article was originally published here. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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