‘The Covid lockdowns had been tough. But, personally, it left me with some powerful moments too. It seemed that my family could connect more with me than before as they were at home most of the time and felt the difficulties of losing mobility’ said Shibil, Research scholar at JNU. Disability isn’t merely a personal incapacity but also socially constituted. Hence, Covid days also reminded us of our inefficiency in effectively integrating disabled people into our system. As we are slowly going back to our old normal and offline schedules, we are on the verge of reopening schools, and how inclusive we are matters.
Children with slight intellectual disabilities are part of our regular schools. They are given a supporting hand with grace marks and extra time. But more important have been their social interactions while learning together, which have been destabilised due to the Covid situations. Regimol Philip, a teacher at St. Antony’s School, Plassanal, Kottayam, says,‘ We follow the IEDC (Integrated Education for Disabled Children) model in our school. The children with mild disabilities learn with the rest of the students in class. They gain much from the classroom experience, relying on friends and teachers. This also helps their personality development. But, the online shift reduced these chances of learning together. We need to compensate for this loss as classes would resume at schools.’
Like adults, the children as well experienced the pandemic at different levels. Some might have been affected, lost dear ones to the pandemic, had the earning members of the family unemployed or went through other worries. Dealing with these strains as a disabled child would have been more challenging. To maintain the momentum of learning in the past one and a half years wouldn’t have been easy, as children lived it not only as students shifting to digital zones but much more. As they return to school, more emotional and academic support would be needed than before.
Dr Krishnakumar, Director, IMHANS, says, ‘Many children with developmental disorders require a structured environment and changes in the day-to-day activities are likely to cause severe adjustment problems. When the schools reopen after nearly one and half years, these children are subjected to another ‘change’, and there is a high chance to develop adjustment problems which may manifest as behaviour disorders or emotional disorders.’ Agreeing to the same, Seema Girija Lal, Together We Can, shares her hope that the government will take it slow this time and in a phased manner. ‘First, the teachers need to be adequately trained to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of children, rather than entirely on academic learning alone. They, too, need the support as much as the students and the parents need. The syllabus will need to be revised to the basic minimum necessary, and alternate assessment formats enabled.’
The reopening of BUDS schools and restoring the Kerala annual scholarship, which had been cut down from Rs 28,500 to Rs 16,500 amidst the pandemic, are called forth. Aswasakiranam scheme needs to be regularised. The Resource Teachers could play a pivotal role in getting the children back to school, and their role and posting need to be strengthened. Also, Covid has opened up the horizons of digital content in learning, though it has been noted that it would serve a purpose only if skillfully designed. Approving this, Seema Girija Lal, TWC, says that digital content can be helpful if SMARTly delivered –
· Be Specific, clear and concise and not having broad, abstract goals,
· Be Measurable and how the learning can be measured should be decided based on the learner,
· Be Attainable considering all other issues that influence learning,
· Be Relevant to the specific learner,
· Be Time-bound and be reviewed periodically to check progress to evolve the IEP [Individualised and Inclusive Education Program].
A comprehensive approach is needed for the students to compensate for the Covid losses. Dr Krishnakumar, IMHANS, says, ‘it is essential that teachers of schools for children with special needs should be given adequate training in dealing with emotional and behavioural issues in children. Children with learning disorders and mild degrees of intellectual disability, and other developmental disorders also require special attention. School Counsellors should be empowered to deal with psychological problems in children. This is an area which the Govt and educational experts should give priority attention.’
As we are gradually retracing the path towards the old normal, it is crucial to be concerned whether all our little ones can be a part of the journey. With a smiling face but anxious eyes, Girija, Seemantini’s mother, said, ‘It was difficult for her to study during Covid. She is happy that schools and colleges are reopening. But as she is already under medication and has recurring episodes of fits, the doctor told her not to get vaccinated. I don’t know if not being vaccinated would make her further studies difficult.’ Pausing for a moment, she continued, ‘I fear how she would take it if she has to remain home when her friends go back to classes.
Covid had been a crucial moment. It is upon the government to decide whether it had been for more significant exclusion of the disabled children or towards their greater integration.