Amid a pandemic, lockdown and govt apathy, NGOs ensure online education addresses learning needs of disabled children

Even as institutions embark on digital platforms to cope with the disruption of traditional pedagogical methods amid the coronavirus crisis, the absence of the disabled community from conversations on education raises questions over the sustainability of online academic practice.

Anvisha Manral June 25, 2020 10:34:33 IST
Amid a pandemic, lockdown and govt apathy, NGOs ensure online education addresses learning needs of disabled children

A two-acre complex in Maharashtra’s Bendshil village, Sangopita is known for offering long term care to its 60 residents, who live with intellectual or physical disabilities. Equipped with a special school and vocational training centre, the facility has trained educators and medical professionals, responsible for the academic interests in addition to the functional and behavioural skills of the students.

However, in a telephonic interview with Firstpost this week, founder Ravindra Sugwekar disclosed that Sangopita has not been able to provide any educational, vocational or language services to its students since 25 March, when the national lockdown was imposed in India due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With nearly 1.26 billion children impacted by the closure of schools globally due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 , the Indian education sector too has witnessed a transformative shift to virtual learning. However, even as several institutions embark on digital platforms to cope with the disruption of traditional pedagogical methods, the glaring absence of the disabled community from mainstream conversations on education raises troubling questions over the sustainability of online academic practice.

Education goes online

While the road to virtual education has been rugged, to remedy the cracks in a seemingly exclusionary education system, several organisations working with disabled students across the country have recreated instructional programmes to provide familiar learning spaces. For instance, apart from engaging students in customised programmes pertaining to movement, gardening, and cooking, the Snehadhara Foundation in Bengaluru has organised online performances with artists, thereby giving students an experience of the spaces they aren't always allowed into.

Amid a pandemic lockdown and govt apathy NGOs ensure online education addresses learning needs of disabled children

An Alice in Wonderland-themed party in progress at the Snehadhara Foundation in Bengaluru.

Similarly, at Chennai-based charitable trust Mirra, the lesson plan for the day is shared with parents in advance while regular attempts to scout for subjects or tasks to undertake at home are made. “Before we began, we did a thorough analysis on various options for online sessions and chose the one that would suit the needs of the child. It was internally experimented [with] and there was no rigidity in our online options. As a result, there has been digitisation of content in terms of more videos, PowerPoint presentation,” says Lakshmi Satish, special educator and co-founder of the organisation.

For certain nonprofits, such as the National Association for the Blind (NAB), which trains visually impaired students at their own educational unit to ultimately send them to regular private and government schools, geographical and financial barriers have posed unique challenges. “We provide laptops to all our children from Class 6, whereas with the help of a screen reader, the students begin using computers Class 3 onwards. While many of our school-going children have had smooth access to online education, they sometimes have trouble paying for their internet data packs. Even though we regularly recharge their data, some of them do not have the devices required for online education, which can keep them from joining their peers,” says Prashant Verma, general secretary of NAB Delhi.

Parenting under pressure

The coronavirus crisis-induced lockdowns have corrupted the understanding of time and space for many people across the world, thereby forcing them to create some semblance of order in their lives. However, in a world where 'normalcy' is being reinvented, for children with disabilities, the pandemic has delivered a blow to their cultivated ‘routine’, which reflected in their initial response to virtual learning.

Amid a pandemic lockdown and govt apathy NGOs ensure online education addresses learning needs of disabled children

An educator conducts a storytelling workshop on YouTube at Mirra, Chennai.

Educators say that during the lockdown, an increased number of meltdowns that sometimes manifest as self-injurious activity or just unusual behaviour has been observed by them in children with special needs. However, as nerve-wracking as the phase has been due to the unforeseen lack of physical proximity, certain organisations have been able to manage these breakdowns, while also addressing the additional burden parenting has placed on individuals with disabled children. “I believe that if you work with parents first and ensure that their anxieties aren’t passed on to the children, 50 percent of the battles are already won. Therefore, we’ve started a study circle where we meet parents once a week, pick a topic and conduct activities around it so that they feel that someone is investing in their psychosocial well-being too,” states Gitanjali Sarangan, founder of the Snehadhara Foundation. She notes that the lockdown has also allowed some parents to discuss profound issues such as sexual education and body awareness with their children.

Moreover, other innovative forms of 'parent-empowering' programmes have been in operation at organisations such as Mirra and Action for Autism. These include yoga and wellness programmes as well as modules where parents are able to participate in tasks with their child, or even daily telephonic check ins. Such practices and conversations have inculcated in parents the confidence to ably manage their child during a meltdown.

For residential establishments such as Sangopita, in the absence of parents, local caretakers living in the nearby village have been asked to shift base to the facility during the lockdown. “Since the lockdown was imposed in such a hurry, most of our parents were unable to take their kids home. Therefore, we send them pictures and let them connect with their children over the phone whenever they wish to,” says Sugwekar.

Amid a pandemic lockdown and govt apathy NGOs ensure online education addresses learning needs of disabled children

A cooking class in progress at Action For Autism.

Financial woes

As India, already in the throes of a pandemic, gears up for the worst technical recession since the 1970s, the ripples are palpable in all sectors, including education and welfare. In a utopian society, non-profit organisations working towards the systemic assimilation of the marginalised should not be forced to contemplate their future in the face of financial constraints. However, in the time of the coronavirus pandemic when uncertainly has gripped all quarters, NGOs aren’t impervious to such instability.

Several organisations have committed donors, which may stand behind them in these times. However, for nonprofits which rely on an internal revenue generation system or grants from either companies or trusts or simply individual donations from the public, the fallout from the lockdown has been especially strenuous. “Our organisation cannot run without donations at all, and in the last two months, our funds have recorded a 70 percent decline due to restricted donor visits. We are now spending out of our reserve funds to meet the daily requirements of our residents,” says Sugwekar. While the caretakers are paid regularly for their services, the teachers’ salaries have not been released.

Reflecting on the past two months, Merry Barua, founder of Action For Austism, says some parents have willingly paid for specific programmes. The organisation depends both on grants from education bodies and foundations, and on charges from parents based on their income levels. Due to the lockdown, the revenue generated from the latter has taken a hit, which has resulted in employees on the higher level of the pay scale taking a voluntary pay cut.

“The registration for the upcoming batch has also been minimal, so finances are going to be difficult. We’ve always had a payment model where we do not completely rely on autistic individuals and their families for money but also on professionals who want to learn, since we’re an organisation that offers capacity building training as well. That too has been hit as online training alone cannot compensate for the hands-on learning component."

Similarly, at the Snehadhara Foundation, the focus has been on “creating a community where every stakeholder is responsible for the wellbeing of the organisation”. To this end, parents have been refunded the amount for services which aren't being used by them.

Government response

While most organisations may have devised an ecosystem that does not involve the government at all, bodies like NAB, which used to rely both on government funding and donations, now find themselves in a bureaucratic quagmire. "We used to get 10-15 percent of our budget from the government until three years ago when we stopped receiving the grant. I have written to the prime minister so that we can at least have our dues cleared as we sometimes pay the schools as much as Rs 5,000 per child, while our services are totally free. Therefore, we're in the middle of a deep financial crisis and have implemented a 30 percent pay cut across the board," says Verma. NAB has also been unable to pay the fees of the children enrolled in private schools since April, this year.

In another blow to many organisations, the corporations that would typically provide financial aid via Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have diverted their donations to the PM Cares Fund. Interestingly, the Companies Act was amended to make the PM Cares Fund eligible for CSR funding. This diversion has drawn flak from activists and educators alike. "We had the Prime Minister's Relief Fund already, so what was the need for this?" asks Anita Ghai, professor at School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University. "The government calls us 'divyang' — it assumes we are divine bodies that don't require help. So much so, the heterogeneity of disabilities is also not clear to society as there's hardly any data available. We are always an afterthought for the government."

Furthermore, activists argue that disability is a state subject so the onus of the community's well-being and education lies on the state, not the NGOs. "The Right to Education makes it compulsory for the government to educate disabled children, but the NGOs [solely] are addressing the needs of such individuals and their families. And the government hasn't released any grants for such institutions during this period. This pandemic has pushed people with disabilities behind by two-three decades," says Arman Ali, executive director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

While the Finance Ministry may have announced a one-time ex-gratia payment of Rs 1,000 for three months (Rs 333 per month), for people with disabilities, a recent survey conducted by the NCPEDP found that 63 percent of the people interviewed had not received the financial assistance announced. Therefore, education for the community doesn't seem to rank high on the government's agenda, even as a digitised examination system seems to be in store, a move that has met with sharp criticism.

The road ahead

Financial worries aside, the upcoming months will see these institutions reopen to contact programmes. For many differently-abled children, practicing social distancing would mean unlearning everything they have been taught so far and expose them to serious discomfort. "Masks can cause a lot of sensory dysfunctionality to these children. Moreover, social distancing won’t happen because many of our students are under care for menstrual hygiene; we change diapers for some 20-year-olds. So, we are trying to factor those areas in," states Sarangan.

For Action For Autism, space might be a worry since some of their rooms may not be spacious enough to maintain safe distance for large groups. This adversity, however, would be turned into an opportunity by permanently digitising certain programmes, which would help families who otherwise travel long distances to partake in them, notes Barua.

Online education is indispensable and NGOs, with their resilience and farsightedness, have ensured children with disabilities aren't left behind. However, if the past two months have made one thing abundantly clear, it is the country's position on "inclusive education".

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