“Education is a right, not a privilege.” William J Clinton
Access to education was never a privilege and it shouldn’t be, but this Pandemic has shown us the worst times ever and compelled all of us to refer to online means for achieving everything, be it work from home, university examinations, COVID-testing and, education.
Though we all recognise the advantages and benefits of going digital: comfort, less commuting time, increased productivity, attending global webinars, workshops and, above all, staying safe from novel Coronavirus. But what’s more important is to understand and realise that the virtual mode is not equally accessible and advantageous to everyone.
Here’s how ableism creeps into online course delivery: when we think that disability is getting in the way of how online courses could run because we’ve only been anticipating “normal” learners, that’s ableism. When students don’t seem to live up to the smart, energetic, social, independent, self-starters, we were expecting online, that’s ableism. When we wait for students to “come out” as disabled and request reactive accommodation, that’s ableism. But when we plan for and embrace disability we counter ableism by building content everyone can tap into.
As universities and schools try to transition learning from physical classrooms to online ones quickly, disabled students have been (and will continue to be) disproportionately affected. The rapid migration to virtual classes has forced disabled students into using websites and apps that were never designed to accommodate them. Therefore, the needs of students with disabilities have been overlooked, causing a lot of problems for students physically and mentally.
According to census reports, there are approximately 2.68 crore persons with disabilities in India, i.e. 2.21% of the total population. Strikingly, many global estimates reveal that it is a gross underestimation and the number could be as high as 18% of the total population. However, despite being a significant part of our population, their concerns are rarely brought to light.
Students with hearing impairment do not have access to sign language interpreters or real-time captioning transcriptions of speech generated by a person during online classes. It makes a lecture hard to understand, and ultimately the person has to spend multiple hours after attending the online classes to compile and rescript the notes after referring to their peers.
Although some virtual platforms do have the option of subtitles or captions known as automated speech recognition, it’s not the best way to assume that they are sufficiently useful to them. It depends on the pace with which the teacher is delivering the lecture and at times is highly inaccurate and inefficient.
The primary issue faced by students with visual impairment is learning materials not being compatible with screen readers, which read and navigate course documents and sometimes transcribe them into Braille. Students having a weak vision are already at high risk of harming their eyes due to increased screen time. It’s challenging to follow reading material or digital textbooks due to its non-availability in an online format compatible with the screen reader, making the whole learning process quite stressful and slow, which is ironic, to say the least.
Several reports show that Children With Special Needs (CWSN) and their parents are finding it difficult to cope with this sudden shift. The State of Education Report for India 2019 states that there are 78,64,636 children with disabilities in India. Out of these, 61% aged between 5 and 19 are attending educational institutions.
But when classes shifted online, logistics and mechanisms were looked at without concern about whether they are CWSN-friendly. The unavailability of special educators for students with speech, hearing and intellectual disabilities create a considerable gap in their learning process as well as making it difficult for the parents to assist their children.
In the case of many students with Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and physical disability, making them sit in one place in front of a laptop for multiple hours continuously without any breaks is in itself a considerable challenge. Making them listen and learn is an almost impossible task. It is incredibly taxing to pay attention and takes a toll on their sensory system navigating through the whole learning experience with no flexibility in the class schedule.
So, its high time to understand and recognise the fact that virtual learning opening a gate to new avenues and providing new opportunities is a myth. Not everyone is inclusive in this process and this transformation from the real to the virtual world has remained exclusionary for some people that are completely invisible to most of the privileged.
Also, keeping in mind the nature of our country’s societal framework and dynamics, where intersectionalities of class, caste, gender, religion, linguistics, region, sexual orientations and ableism play a fundamental role in access to all resources.
It’s even more important to divert our attentions to the marginalised community to make this place equal for all. Having access to electronic devices, assistive technologies and the Internet is crucial for online education; something which is not safe to assume that a majority of disabled children would have.
For families from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, online learning is “either non-existent or discontinuous,” said Philip, the principal, and psychologist at Raksha Society, from Kochi. Therefore, it gets further aggravated according to the different social categories. Online education is indispensable, but its shortcomings need to be resolved and acknowledged, to begin with.
1. Anderson G, (2020, April 6), Accessibility Suffers during Pandemic.
2. Bhattacharjee T, (2020, June 23), Stuck at Home, Children Having Learning Disorders Struggle with Online Classes.
3. Esmail L, Zoom Can’t Show You How Hard It Is to Learn This Way.
4. Jindal N, Urvashi S, (2020, June 26), Schools Must Ensure That Moving Online Won’t Disadvantage Children with Special Needs.
5. Jones C, (2018, August 21), Accessibility Must Be More Than An Add-On To Online Pedagogy.