The Digital Schooling Coverage for Youngsters With Disabilities Is Exclusion within the Identify of Inclusion

Time and again, people with disabilities have been used as scapegoats by the current political regime to demonstrate benevolence and earn vanity points by evoking feelings of compassion and charity in the larger gullible Indian population. Be it through the spread of stigmatizing terminology like divyangjan, the abrupt decision to award the title on a whim without consulting the community, or the symbolism that takes place every day of the Republic when a tableau of Indian Sign Language (ISL) im Television is being set up to demonstrate the government’s so-called inclusive mindset, if so.

Is there something wrong with the word disability? Then why shun and change to divyangjan, a word that associates the role of the divine with a person’s handicap. Why don’t we have ISL interpreters at all government events or major announcements? The answer is simple: inclusion is an illusion created by this government to be bent and used as a photo opportunity for self-promotion. As part of the illusion, it is forbidden to actually address the specific needs of people with disabilities through a rights-based approach.

Another such attempt at masturbation has been made by the government by developing a charitable direction of digital education policy for children with “special needs”. A friendly Ministry of Education (MoE) bureaucrat had sent us the latest 148-page guidelines for honest review, entitled “E-Content Development Guidelines for Children with Disabilities” (E-Content Guidelines). This was because the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) was part of the initial consultations, but due to my extensive interrogation during the first meeting, we were excluded from the “consultation process”. The e-content guidelines gave me the opportunity to jump the rabbit hole and review the document holistically, looking at all aspects of the digital education program related to disabilities.

Representative image of a teacher taking an online course. Photo: PTI

At the outset it is clear that the guidelines formulated by “experts” were not written to bridge the digital divide. In short, the document outlines how accessible content should be made for children with disabilities and no more. This in itself is the first exclusion point, as a survey by Learning Spiral, a provider of online exam solutions, shows that over 50% of all Indian children living in rural and urban settings have no internet access.

The aim of this article is not to comment on the primary aspect of exclusion, namely lack of access to the internet. It is intended to point out how e-content guidelines read in the context of the larger PM eVidya program exclude even disabled children who have access to the internet. Also, focusing on e-content creation without a plan to make active online courses available will continue to marginalize disabled children and widen the gap between the disabled community and the mainstream.

Also Read: Why Are Not Enough Students From Tribal Communities Receiving The National Study Abroad Scholarship?

Digital educational initiatives for the community with disabilities

To understand the scope of the government’s digital education program or the PM eVidya initiative, we need to go through pages three through six of the e-content guidelines, which identified 13 different digital education initiatives. To add to the confusion, there are two additional documents that complement the latest e-content guidelines, namely the more general PRAGYATA guidelines and guidelines for the development of e-content for school and teacher education version 3, which are known as Evaluation tools are used to support the creation of content.

PRAGYATA guidelines the vaguest document of all talks about the three modes of digital education: i) online mode; ii) partially online mode or passive learning methods that are content-based rather than interaction-based; and iii) offline mode, which includes the use of television and radio to deliver education to the masses.

After going through all of the digital initiatives / guidelines it’s hard to believe that there isn’t even a single phrase to make interactive online lessons accessible to disabled children. Only guidelines for e-content creation have been developed for the three forms of digital education. The content is still under development. In addition, these only apply to the “partially online mode” of learning.

The only option made available by the e-content guidelines is the passive learning style based on the content rather than the personal interaction of the student and teacher. This is extremely detrimental to disabled children as exclusion from an active classroom would affect their learning, social skills, and mental and emotional wellbeing.

E-content is intended to complement the child’s education as it is a passive learning mode with limited or no interaction. In the current scenario, the lack of guidelines for the accessibility of interactive online courses means that teachers are at great risk of identifying students with disabilities and pushing them to access e-content rather than teaching them in an inclusive environment with their peers.

While the e-content guidelines identify 13 different large government digital education initiatives that cover different levels of study, nowhere is it specifically stated that they will be applicable to all 13 platforms. The focus of the document is exclusively on the DIKSHA platform and this special platform is only aimed at classes I to XII. By not covering the other 12 digital initiatives and only focusing on the DIKSHA portal, the country’s digital education program is creating a box in a box and labeling it inclusive. This is literally the picture of exclusion: people with disabilities are not welcome on the other platforms, please only use the DIKSHA portal!

Representative picture. Photo: LCCR / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

Not-inclusive assessment tools

To evaluate the developed content, the e-content guidelines are based on user feedback as a central evaluation tool. After going through the checklist that is part of the Guide to Developing E-Content for School and Teacher Education Version 3, different lists have been created for different evaluators who are students, teachers and administrators. However, there is no mention of “disability” or “accessibility measures” that the content in the checklist is supposed to have mentioned.

Since there is no explicit accessibility check of content, there is a higher probability that inaccessible content will be let through. From my point of view, accessibility components have to be explicitly part of the checklist. Let’s examine an example of what could happen without them. Although the DIKSHA platform was specially developed for disabled children, it enables both children with and without disabilities. If all children test the content using the current non-inclusive checklist, well-designed but not accessible content will receive a high level of approval. Without an accessible checklist, children with disabilities have no way of locating their specific problem with the content in question.

The e-content guidelines focus on collecting metadata for accessibility. This is done so that the DIKSHA platform can suggest content to children. However, because the e-content guidelines only focus on content accessibility and not address the accessibility of online courses or offline modes of digital education such as television or radio, the e-content guidelines are aimed at a small segment of the disabled population aligned. This population may already have access to content that is available internationally because they already have access to the Internet.

Also read: Interview | Mahima Bhalla on why we need to switch from “special” to inclusive education

Because DIKSHA is explicitly mentioned in the e-content guidelines and it is unclear which platforms these guidelines apply to, disabled children are pushed towards a single option. With no other form of digital education available, there is a greater chance that the very content created to empower disabled children and labeled as their savior will only marginalize them by taking it away from the mainstream form of the Exclude interactive live one-to-one lessons -one, teacher-assisted education.

I would recommend applying the guidelines not only to the content of the DIKSHA portal, but to all content that is developed by various actors. The experts working with the Ministry of Education should also work on developing SOPs for passive use of the content as a supplement to support the education of a disabled child.

These practices should train teachers to use the content only as a complement and not as an alternative to teaching the child. The parameters that are part of the checklists used by different actors to assess the accessibility of electronic content need to be checked on a disability-specific basis so that the person evaluating the content can identify various inaccessible features.

The strongest recommendation would be that the MoE develop guidelines and standard operating procedures to make interactive online teaching accessible so that students with disabilities can exercise their right to education on an equal footing with their peers and not pigeonhole themselves to refer to electronic content leave the only accessible learning method.

Shameer Rishad is the chairman of the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF). He can be reached on Twitter @RishadShameer.


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