Ever since teaching shifted to online mode due to COVID-19, Anas Khan, a Class 10 visually challenged student, is having a tough time. He cannot attend online classes because he doesn’t have a smart phone.
Owning one is a far-fetched dream as his elder brother is the only earning member (an errand boy at a local provision store in Vasant Vihar) in a family of eight.
Like Khan, many visually-challenged students have been struggling to gain access to learning in the pandemic. With online learning not an easy route even for abled students, challenges multiply manifold for the visually challenged. Students who have gone back to their hometowns and villages, are facing Internet connectivity issues.
“This hampers my learning exercise,” says Vinay Meena, another visuallychallanged Class 10 student from Jharkhand, adding, “It is difficult to study on a mobile phone because the screen is small. Ideally, I should have a desktop computer, if not a laptop.”
Social distancing is a major challenge for visually-challenged as they need assistance at each stage. Mostly, it is a friend or a co-learner who shares resources – Braille books and sheets, a smartphone/ laptop with assistive technology
Inaccessibility to Assistive Technology
As schools remain shut, students are away from special educators and their classrooms that are equipped with sophisticated assistive technology, which is not available at their homes. Cyber cafes are also not an option as the computers have to be equipped with specialised softwares.
“These softwares are available only at the institutions and homes of a handful of students,” says NAB general secretary Prashant Ranjan Verma. Another difficulty is absence of text/doc files.
“Though the laptops of the students at NAB have the Screen Reading Talking (SRT) software, the teachers at schools where they study (like DAV, DPS, Tagore International) just share notes and pages of the chapter they are teaching in photo files. This is of no help to the student as the SRT software cannot read the JPG files. The content needs to be shared in text or doc format,” he says.
Making the best
The schools are managing in whatever small way they can. Dhirender Singh, Vice Principal, Institution for the Blind, Panchkuian Road, notes that their students mainly belong to lower-income families and don’t have access to smartphones. Those who went back to their hometowns in Western UP and Bihar are facing Internet connectivity issues.
To remedy this, Singh formed a WhatsApp group adding all his students and teachers. The institution has 65 students from Class 1 to 8, who are imparted learning apart from senior students who study at other schools and use the hostel facility at the institution.
“I asked teachers to upload audio lessons here so students can access these anytime.” Streaming online videos on low Internet speed is a challenge for teachers as well, “more so, because most of my teachers are also visuallychallenged. But, something is better than nothing,” shares Singh.
NAB too has created WhatsApp groups for each class. For science and maths, Skype and Google classes are held.
Verma, who is also an independent consultant with Switzerland- based DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) Consortium, says that younger visually challenged kids are suffering the most.
“They need to be taught Braille first and thereafter, the concept of numbers, etc., using teaching aids and 3D models. Teachers try to explain these concepts online, but it has been a futile exercise. We tried it with parents too, but only in some cases have they been of help,” he says.
Shantha Rangarajan, Principal, National Association for the Blind (NAB), Delhi, draws attention towards an important point which should be taken care of by policymakers.
“Each disabled child should be trained in computers and use of assistive technology from the very beginning. It should be a mandatory exercise. But most visually-challenged are given this training only after their studies are complete,” she says.
With online learning not an easy route even for abled students, challenges multiply manifold for the visually challenged. Students who have gone back to their hometowns and villages, are facing Internet connectivity issues.
Social distancing is a major challenge for visually-challenged as they need assistance at each stage. Mostly, it is a friend or a co-learner who shares resources – Braille books and sheets, a martphone or laptop loaded with assistive technology. Streaming videos on low Internet speed is a challenge for teachers as well, most of whom are visually challenged too.