Even as millions of students across India have struggled to access online education with schools and colleges closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the specific needs of students with disabilities have largely been ignored.

The absence of adequate teaching learning materials, the unaffordability of digital devices, the inability to understand classes and complete work and the unavailability of sign language interpreters for television classes were among the challenges faced by students with disabilities, according to a study of four states by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy released in December.

These challenges have now become the subject of a case filed by Javed Abidi Foundation, an NGO that works in the area of disability rights. It has asked the government to frame guidelines to ensure that students with disabilities are able to participate equally in online classes.

The matter has been listed in the Supreme Court on October 25.

The petition contended that this lapse by the Department of Empowerment of Person with Disabilities and Department of Higher Education and failure to provide “reasonable accommodation” to students with disabilities in online education constitutes discrimination under the Rights of Person with Disabilities Act 2016 and so violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality of law.

Reasonable accommodation as defined under the Right of Person with Disabilities Act means “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments, without imposing a disproportionate or undue burden in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise of rights equally with others”.

Struggle with online education

The Vidhi report said that only 9% of students with disabilities were able to get home visits by teachers, something that is essential for many students, especially those with intellectual disabilities, for whom physical modes of teaching are vital.

A survey conducted by the community organisation Swabhman across nine states found that 43% of students with disabilities were planning to drop out of school due to the difficulties they faced by them in accessing online education. Seventy seven percent of students with disabilities reported that they cannot cope with the current model of teaching and are bound to fall behind.

It also found that around 80% of teachers do not have an accessible format to disperse materials to their students with disabilities,

UNICEF has recognised that disability is one of the most serious barriers to education across the globe. However the barrier is not because of the disability itself but rather the absence of accommodating infrastructure. This crisis is exacerbated in online education.

The United Nation in its report titled “The impact of Covid-19 on children’’ underlined the fact that children with disabilities are especially hard to serve through distance programmes as they are most dependent upon face-to-face education service because of the different nature of disability.

Possible interventions

1. Compensatory education

In the United States, students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education under the Individual with Disabilities Act. In 2008, in a case known as Draper v. Atlanta Independent School System, a US court underlined the idea behind this compensatory education. The court ruled that compensatory education is to put students with disabilities in a position they would have been in but for the violations of their rights under the Individual with Disabilities Act. The courts can also order monetary compensation to parents of students with disabilities if institutions or educators fail to devise Individualised Education programmes for students.

In India, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 prescribes the duties of educational institutions in providing education to persons with disabilities. The act mandates that educational institutions provide equal opportunity to education and ensure that education is imparted in the most appropriate model taking into account an individual’s needs and requirements.

Both the executive and the judiciary can invoke this mandate to ask institutions to provide compensatory education to students with disabilities.

2. Dedicated fund for families raising children with disabilities

In the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Children maintains a dedicated fund for families of children with disabilities. In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the British government announced an additional commitment of around 40 million pounds for the fund. A significant portion of it will be used to buy accessible equipment for the education of children with disabilities.

3. Generating accessible study material

Online education is now a reality. The threat of another wave of Covid-19 or another disease looms. It is essential for private and public institutions at the Central, state and local level to generate educational material that is accessible for students with disabilities.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 talks about specific measures to make education more inclusive. It provides for resource centres to be established to support educational institutions and provide books and Braille assistive devices free of cost to students with disabilities upto the age of 15.

India could follow the example of Turkey, which has launched a mobile application for special learners with features like audio narration, sign language videos and simplified text.

In addition, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 directs the government to ensure that all content available in the audio, print and electronic media are in formats accessible to persons with disabilities. Various government bodies should coordinate to ensure that international accessibility norms become an integrated part of course and content preparation for students.

4. Expanding legal mandates

The Right to Children of Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 is limited in its scope as it prescribes standards only for physical infrastructure in schools. The schedule of the act prescribes providing teaching and learning equipment to teachers and students. However, the act does not include digital equipment to be provided for teachers. It should be amended to do so.

Besides, the National Policy on Information and Communication on school education should be expanded to incorporate the lessons learned about online education during the Covid-19 lockdown especially with regard to students with disabilities.

Empowering for some

Despite these challenges, online education has not been an entirely negative experience for students with disabilities – in fact, it has also been empowering for some. For instance, Subhash Chandra Vashisth, a leading lawyer on disability rights, pointed out that many visually disabled students were already very well trained in using screen readers on their computer and mobile devices. This allowed them to adapt more quickly to the online mode of education from the comfort and safety of their homes.

Similarly, the National Institute of Open Schooling introduced talking books and expanded its database to have wider reach both in terms of demography and language. It has developed more than 270 videos in sign language in seven subjects for learners at the secondary level.

Digital platforms including video conferencing services like Zoom and Google meet have features that recognise the needs of persons with disability. Websites have also incorporated basic accessible features such as text-to-speech, text enlargement and dark mode for photosensitive people.

The effects of online education on children with disabilities are very well documented and do not necessarily need any reiteration by the government or the courts. The community is looking at both wings of the state for the solution. The solutions rendered till now are short-term and scattered in their approach. Many welfare measures do not reach the community.

As I have written earlier, persons with disabilities are most unequal among unequals. Any measure without taking cognisance of their marginalisation is bound to fail.

The right to education does not just include the right to go to school but also means the right to learn and the right to knowledge. This can only be achieved by children with disabilities only if they are provided reasonable accommodation depending on their individual needs. Any action less than that will amount to depriving them of the right to learn, right to school, right to equality and right to dignity.