The pandemic broke the rhythm of normal days for children as their schools were shut, playgrounds closed, and zones of social life lessened. This was more so for the disabled children. As the Covid was also about spending more time at home, and involved a blanket shift to the online mode, getting the children adapted to the sudden change was difficult. Dr Krishnakumar, the Director of the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Calicut, says ‘children with developmental disorders have been most affected with the lockdowns, school closure and other restrictions enforced to fight the COVID 19 pandemic. Schools for children with special needs remained closed for nearly one and a half years and therapy centres were either closed down or were not accessible due to travel restrictions.’
Together We Can is an advocacy group based in Cochin, addressing the rights of children with autism and other neurological disabilities. Seema Girija Lal, TWC shared the troubles that Covid put forth into the lives of disabled children as it also threatened the parent-child equation. ‘Once learning shifted to the online mode, the difficulties compounded as it was not just the children coping anymore, but the families had to cope with the shift. The little respite mainly mothers [as primary caregivers] received when the children were at school was also taken away, in addition to the increase in household work with all family members at home all day. Other stress included that of job insecurity or job loss and more took a toll over their mental health too.’
The Covid outbreak, to a great extent, damaged the previous schemes instituted to support disabled children and their families. The BUDS schools had been closed for the entire period without alternate schemes being put in place. As most attending the BUDS schools are from poor backgrounds, the closure of schools also meant income loss for their families as it became difficult for the parents to go to work leaving children alone at homes.
Adding to this, the Kerala state government reduced the annual scholarships from Rs 28,500 to Rs 16,500 amidst the pandemic. The state cut down Rs 12,000 which had been the travelling allowance (12 months x Rs 1000), citing that children aren’t travelling under the covid situations. Given that the government didn’t make necessary arrangements to cater to these children with services at home during the pandemic, the cut in scholarship was a deeply resented move. Also, the Aswasakiranam scheme hasn’t been effectively implemented since 2018.
Seemanthini is a 22-year-old with cerebral palsy and has been attending regular schools since childhood. Her mother Girija, fighting the strains of being a single parent, says, ‘Covid situation was very difficult to manage for us. Her immunity is very low. Even if it rains heavily, she becomes feverish. We had to be very careful even for small things out of the Covid fear. Also, for many months, she couldn’t attend her physiotherapy sessions. Travelling and managing travel expenses were very hard. She tries to be happy always, but I miss the way she used to smile during her school and college days.’
As the pandemic took hold of our lives, ‘going digital’ became the lifeline on which our educational system relied. Shibil, a physically disabled research scholar at JNU shares his personal and political take regarding the digital zones, ‘it seems that the shift to digital platforms has brought out certain possibilities, as our system works with much infrastructural inefficiency. For example, it would be difficult for a child to think of being in a school, if he/she can’t manage himself/herself to the washrooms. Being part of digital classrooms, for that part offers the opportunity to access education beyond these limitations. Yet, digital platforms can’t substitute the social experience of school environments, and hence the larger priority should be to get the students to schools itself.’
Though having faith in digital platforms, Seema Girija Lal reminds the let-downs that were part of the digital experiment in between the pandemic. ‘During Covid, the need for an individualized education program that focused on the strengths of the child was more imperative than before. As the focus was more on shifting the same existing model into an online platform without preparing the children, the parents and the teachers, the shift was rather rash and abrupt.’ Concurring to the same, Visvanathan, PARIVAR Kerala shared that the digital content hasn’t been that effective for the kids with neurological disabilities, as more specific digital content creation is needed to support them. Also, the accesses to digital devices, and the parents’ ability to use the devices, need to be more candidly worked on.
Coping with the Covid induced difficulties hadn’t been an easy journey. For the disabled children, the shift had been even tougher. Their families too lived it hard. As we reopen schools, it is upon the government to ensure that they continue to be with the rest, in the journey ahead. Also, beyond the harsh times, Covid is leaving us with new keys to deal with our issues. The promises of digital content need to be tapped effectively to support the children, even after the offline schedules resume. This isn’t a matter of giving aid or service, but a genuine and fundamental right of the disabled children. Hence, as we devise means to sail through the crisis, it is a responsibility to provide boats of different sizes and shapes for our younger ones, as the same need not help survive all.