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As We Shift To Online Classes, Students With Disabilities Cannot Be Left Behind

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Image of Prime Minister Modi addressing the country.
Prime Minister Modi. File photo.

As a student activist working in the area of disability rights, I sat through Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, listening to each word intently. “Sabke Prati Samvedna”, which loosely translates to caring for everyone.

This line, coupled with the term “Aatma-nirbharta” (self-reliance) and the heart-wrenching stories of migrant workers suffering, which has led to an announcement of a ₹20 lakh crore care package, made me realise something.

That even though the government may want to take care of everyone the reality is that the invisible, who don’t raise their voices or who are not heard, fall through the cracks if they are not self-reliant.

Students with disabilities, studying in universities in India, are unable to access online education as it is not inclusive. One may argue that this issue of the invisible minority isn’t a matter of life and death. But, for the youth belonging to an extremely vulnerable, marginalised community, who have overcome all odds to reach the university level, competing on a daily basis with themselves and other students without disabilities, then not being able to have the same right as their peers, is a violation of their being. Our Honourable Prime Minister laid down the five pillars of self- reliance; first, our economy which should make a ‘quantum jump’.

To make this jump, how is the government equipping youth with disabilities if they aren’t even on the same level playing field when it comes to education?

Next on the list was modern infrastructure, which needs to adapt itself to the needs of people and not leave anyone behind. Third, he talked about systems that need to evolve and push India into the age of technology. This step itself should be an indicator to include the marginalised because if they are left behind then integration into the mainstream would be a mammoth task.

The fourth point made by him was vibrant demography, therefore taking into account disability as a part of human diversity and working towards their inclusion should be a goal for the government. Finally, the fifth point is that to generate demand in order to tackle the economic crisis, this shouldn’t be without the participation of people with disabilities.

The percentage of people with disabilities is highest in the age group 10-19 years followed by age group 20-29 years for both the male and female demographics. Experts in the field of disability in India believe that the percentage of persons with disability ranges from 10% to 15% which amounts to 13.52 to 20.28 crore people.

Person in a wheelchair working on a computer.
Representational image.

This is seconded by WHO’s World report on disability which states that about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. However, according to the 2011 Census data of the Government, this number drastically drops to 2.21% of the total population of India which amounts to 2.68 crores.

The Census data further shows that 61% of the disabled children aged 5-19 years are enrolled in school but looking at the All India Survey on Higher Education (2015-2016) conducted by Ministry of Human Resource Development only a mere 74,435 students are enrolled in Universities across India!

Assimilating key messages from the Prime Minister’s address, I agree with him that every adversity can be turned into an opportunity. India started its fight against COVID-19 with no production of PPE and now India is producing 2 lakh PPE’s and N95 masks a day.

Further, the Prime Minister encouraged citizens by saying “Koi Laksh Assambhav Nahin, Koi Rah Mushkil Nahin” which roughly translates to. no goal is unachievable and no path is impossible to follow. In this regard, being the convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) a youth advocacy group, I and my team of students have been advocating for making online education accessible for students with disabilities.

On April 25, 2020, JAF wrote a letter to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), regarding the inaccessibility of online classes. Much to our surprise, we received a prompt response on April 29, 2020, as per which MSJE directed the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) department of higher education to issue an advisory to all States, Union Territories, and academic institutions to provide equal opportunity to all students with disabilities.

Representational image.

This was a welcome move as this is an urgent matter causing a lot of distress to disabled students across the country. Not having heard from MHRD though and with the intention of expediting the process, JAF held formal consultations with students and experts between April 30 and May 3, 2020, to formulate recommendations for the MHRD, Department of Higher Education. We sent these recommendations on May 5, 2020.

The Prime Minister, in his address, promised bold reforms, giving the example of how even with the lockdown and government offices being closed his administration was able to help farmers by providing monetary support.

In this particular case neither are students asking for money nor are they asking for charity.

What they want is their right to education and this can be provided to them with a flick of a pen.

This issue is equally important for students with disabilities at school level and with so many entrance exams postponed, there is also a need for relevant guidelines in that regard as well. As we move into a new age where online education is becoming the new normal, I would urge everyone to raise their voice against discrimination and towards creating a more inclusive environment for learning.

The author is the convenor of Javed Abidi Foundation. He can be reached at shameer@jaf.org.in or on Twitter.  

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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