In the midst of the pandemic, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had provided students with access to a ‘Help Desk’ for queries and grievances related to COVID-19. This was a positive step that would have allowed students to seek support and allow their education to be unharmed. However, the UGC website itself caused students with disabilities to become more marginalised, as it is completely inaccessible.
Through the Wave: Web Accessibility evaluation tool, it was observed that the website has 290 major accessibility errors, 494 contrasting errors and other errors as well. Accessibility of digital platforms is mandated under section 46 read along with section 40 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016.
The Help Desk is completely inaccessible for students with visual impairment, as images on the page don’t have appropriate Alt Text. The process to register one’s grievances is also inaccessible to blind students, as to do so an individual has to fill in captcha code.
Masoom Reza, a youth activist and law student, observed that, “Not a single government educational platform is there which I can access without trouble navigating through the screen reader. For me, UGC stands for Unreachable Government Commission.”
On May 31, Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) sent the Chairman of UGC a recommendations to fix the accessibility issues in the Covid-19 help desk. On June 6, 2020, JAF registered a complaint with the Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) via an email, informing them that UGC has violated Sections 3, 16, 17, 42 and 46 of the RPWD Act of 2016.
On June 5, another letter was sent, asking them to make the site more accessible. No response was received from either of them. On July 17, JAF sent a letter to the PMO, informing them of the lack of response received on this issue. The PMO finally asked the MSJE office to send a response, but we are yet to receive one. Another email was sent on August 4 to the secretary of UGC, re-informing UGC of the changes demanded by the RPWD Act, 2016. They are yet to respond.
“Nobody can deny the significance of such online educational portals during the COVID-19 scenario, even though the UGC and the MHRD through their different guidelines and inaccessible portals have left persons with disabilities in the lurch and they’re constantly flouting the mandate of RPWD Act.”
There is a clear sense of apathy on part of UGC. Despite facing the same challenges faced by everyone else in the pandemic, disabled students have even less accessibility. Despite the Help Desk promising to address the grievances of its students, this issue that leaves many students even more marginalised is left unanswered.
The UGC Help Desk is not the only form of a digital platform that thickens the margins for the disabled community. Needless to emphasize, it creates an inherently unfair environment for students with disabilities who belong to a marginalised community and are facing more and more obstacles to pursue their education.
Accessible education is a fundamental right of every citizen, including persons with disabilities. Right to the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 also seeks to promote inclusive education. As per the section 2(M) of the RPWD Act, inclusive education means a system of teaching and learning where students with and without disabilities study together, forming a system which fulfils specific needs of students with disabilities. The Act also mandates that the government and educational institutions should make reasonable adjustments or take suitable pedagogical measures to impart education to all the students of disabilities.
“I feel that The act has opened the doors of new possibilities and a range of opportunities for persons with disabilities, but Negative mind set and lethargic attitude of the governments does not ever let the doors open for us without struggle.”
Additionally, in an article of the Hindustan Times, published on May 8 2020, it was mentioned that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) was planning on starting 12 direct-to-home (DTH) television channels each catering to students from one academic year to another to serve as virtual classrooms during the period of the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
It aims to bridge the digital divide for students from class 1 to 12. Agencies such as the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) may be used to develop content and run these channels. These channels will be free of cost and in different vernacular languages as well. Further, in the article, it was clarified that Swayam Prabha Channels, which is a group of 32 channels, will be repackaged to serve this purpose.
It was also mentioned that Higher Education may also be launched this way in consultation with All India for Higher Education (AICTE). The MHRD has several digital platforms like ePathshala, Swayam, Swayam Prabha, Diksha, and several others. These platforms have seen increased usage in recent times as most educational institutions were suspended even before the imposition of the lockdown.
Needless to say, launching TV-based educational programmes is a remarkable step. This initiative of the government will be a game-changer as these channels will operate 24×7 and provide 4 hours worth of new content each day. This mode of education offers several curriculum-based programmes including courses related to school education, higher education, and competitive exam preparation which are of crucial importance for everyone including students with disabilities.
Now, to open Pandora’s box of basic accessibility questions. How would visually-impaired students come to know about the tuned channel name and information? How would they understand diagrams, tables, and various pictorial representations? Will they facilitate captions for people who are deaf-blind? Will the content have sign language interpretation, making it accessible to the deaf community? How inclusive is the channel/programme for persons with intellectual disability? These questions go unanswered.
JAF tested the following digital platforms of MHRD: swayamprabha.gov.in, epathshala.nic.in, and swayam.gov.in and found that swayamprabha.gov.in had 69 major accessibility errors, 1273 contrasting errors, and several other errors, epathshala.nic.in had 42 major accessibility errors, 13 contrasting errors and other errors and Swayam.gov.in had 39 major accessibility errors, 6 contrasting errors and other errors.
Further, the content provided on the ePathshala website was also found to be inaccessible. The texts were not readable by those with print disabilities, there was no sign language interpretation, there was no captioning available and there was no audio description.
Another important point to mention is that there are many private educational apps like Byju’s, Unacademy, and others which are also inaccessible for people with disabilities as per the preliminary study conducted by Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre (DEOC). It is to be highlighted that The RPWD Act mandates that private service providers should also promote accessibility.
This inaccessibility in various forms of educational resources leads to marginalisation for the students with a disability, as they do not get similar study material as the other students. In India, study materials beyond the classroom are a vital part of completing scholarly pursuits. The responsibility of the concerned parties is to remove as many hurdles as they can for all their students.
According to a report titled Disabled Persons in India a Statistical Profile 2016, published by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), 69% of people with disabilities live in rural India. This makes it evidently clear that if the competent authority does not create accessible content while implementing a project which endeavours to bridge the digital divide, then once again, people with disabilities will be left behind.
Researches reveal the literacy rate of persons with disabilities is abysmally low. As per the 2011 census, the literacy rate of disabled women and disabled men is 45% and 62% respectively, which is far below the national literacy rate. Additionally, only 8.5% of persons with disabilities successfully complete their graduation degree.19
In this backdrop, the immediate government intervention is the need of the hour. The government should make educational E-platforms accessible to people with disabilities. It is evident that platforms like Swayam Prabha, if implemented correctly, may turn out to be a lifeline for students who are financially weak, unable to get internet facilities or live in remote areas. The UGC should also make its grievance redressal mechanism portal and other contents accessible. Unrestricted education is a key factor in creating an integrated and inclusive society.
Note: This article is co-authored by JAF volunteer Masoom Reza, who is a student of law at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) & JAF Programme Coordinator Sparsh Sharma. You can reach the Convenor of JAF Shameer Rishad on Twitter