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Amid Systemic Delays And Apathy, Online Classes Are A Struggle For Disabled Students

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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.”

Image of Masoom Reza speaking into the camera, along with an image of a sign language interpreter. Text in the image says- 'Hello everyone! I am Masoom Reza, a law student at Jamia Milia Islamia.
Image provided by the author.

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.

Image of the entrance gate of the UGC office.
Representative image.

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.

Image of a child holding a phone and writing in a notebook while studying.
How would visually-impaired students come to know about the tuned channel name and information? Representative image.

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.

Image of a child using a tablet to study, while studying from a notebook
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. Representative image.

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

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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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