By Rita Crespo Fernandez, Humanity & Inclusion
Khursaid, who lives in Nepal, is in the 4th grade. He can only see when using glasses and has been using them since he was two. During the lockdown, his glasses broke, and ever since he has had difficulty in performing everyday activities, particularly in doing school work. He has no access to internet and his mother just has a simple phone which is not suitable for distance learning.
His father lost his job, which has affected the household’s income. Currently, it is difficult to see how Khursaid will be able to remain in school without financial support to cover other school costs. His family may also need him to help earn an income, which is currently their biggest priority.
Testimony collected by Humanity & Inclusion in Nepal, as part of the Assessment of education provision for children with disabilities during COVID-19, 2020.
Challenging times for children with disabilities
At the peak of the pandemic, according to UNESCO, 1.6 billion children were out of school. Already before the COVID-19 outbreak, one in five children and young people were excluded from education, children with disabilities being 2.5 times more likely to have never been in school than their peers without disabilities.
While school closures represented a challenging situation for all learners, children with disabilities found it particularly difficult to stay connected and continue learning. A survey conducted by Save the Children showed that during the pandemic 90% of the caregivers of children and young people with disabilities reported encountering obstacles to learning.
Children with disabilities are more affected by the digital gap. Internet connection, computers, and other devices are often not available in their households, as many of them are confronted with financial constraints and limited access to resources. We supported Pinda, below, a young girl with visual impairments in Mali, access classes broadcast on the radio by providing her with a solar radio.
For many children, the tools are not adapted to their needs. For example, classes via radio were not accessible for children with hearing impairments; and pedagogical materials to study from home are often not appropriately tailored for children with intellectual disabilities.
Lockdowns entailed disruption not only in the learning, but also in the provision of a number of services, such as health care, rehabilitation and assistive technology, psychosocial support, nutrition, etc. We learnt that Khursaid was not able to attend his regular eye check-ups and have his glasses repaired, for instance. When these services are made available in schools, they are more likely to be taken up and benefit all children, in particular children with disabilities.
As schools reopen and we keep hearing words of hope about the “new normal”, many children will not to be able to return to school. Increased financial hardship resulting from the pandemic may lead to many children, in particular children with disabilities who often live in relatively poorer families, dropping out of school or not returning when they reopen. If robust actions are not undertaken, pre-existing barriers – exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis – will continue to hinder access to and progress in education for children with disabilities.
Ensuring continuity of learning and adequate support
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Humanity & Inclusion and its partners have adapted their inclusive education projects to support the continuation of learning for children with disabilities keeping the four following priorities front of mind:
- Adapted learning arrangements: In Nepal, we developed inclusive and accessible distance-learning materials supported by the government, which were then shared with community volunteers, in charge of providing support to students in remote areas. In addition, the government’s Radio Schooling Program was supported in Banke district, to be more inclusive and accessible.
- Connected learners: In Nepal, the accessibility and availability of existing assets for distance learning were assessed. Furthermore, learning materials in braille format and with sign language pictures were produced and disseminated to learners who use these formats.
- Trained and supported teachers: In Kenya, school personnel were given the necessary information about COVID-19 prevention measures, and teachers were trained in basic sign language, in order to better support learners with hearing impairments, at home and school.
- All children’s needs addressed: In Kenya, the staff assessed children’s’ educational, health, protection and psycho-social needs, and referred children to relevant services, when necessary. In Nepal, an online SMS tracking system was put in place for safeguarding against violence and health concerns of children and youths with disabilities.
Sahajan, a 14 year old girl who has a hearing impairment and uses sign language, appreciates the support provided by the community volunteer who is assigned to her:
The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to re-imagine education systems, reduce inequity, and create better learning opportunities for all, during and beyond crisis. We should build on lessons learnt and ramp-up successful initiatives.