Online classes do not work for children with hearing impairments, and so the pandemic has brought their studies to a halt.
Anantnag (Jammu and Kashmir): Mohammad Saeed Bhat, a resident of south Kashmir’s Dialgam area, had enrolled his daughter, Iflah Saeed, in one of the schools in Srinagar’s Solina area meant for children with disabilities. After passing her Class 8 examinations, 15-year-old Iflah was looking forward to continuing her education. However, a week later, the nationwide lockdown was imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and her hopes were dashed.
Seven months have passed and Iflah has been sitting idle at home in Anantnag district. Unlike other students, who can study online, Iflah is hearing and speech impaired. She is the eldest among three siblings. Her 14-year-old brother Mehran Saeed, who is studying in Class 8, is also hearing and speech impaired. Only their 12-year-old sister is without any disability.
“My two children are not able to learn through online classes because they can’t hear what their teachers are saying. They understand sign language but there is no sign language interpreter for such students in schools,” rued Mohammad, who is extremely worried as his children have nothing to do. Since March, they have neither been to school nor attended online classes.
Mohammad, a farmer and a responsible father, always wanted to give his children a good education. In March this year, he had rented a house in Srinagar so his children could study. “After a few days, the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then, my children feel irritated as they have nothing to do at home. I tried hard to ensure a good education for them, but they have started feeling detached from studies,” he said.
Explaining the role school has played in the last few months, Mohammad said, “The school authorities had sent us a few topics to study that my children were unable to study. My son, who has always been quite good at studies, now feels anxious and irritated sitting idle at home.”
Mohammad believes mass promotion was not good for the growth of children. “When they have not read a single word, how can we expect them to grow in their life? I have made efforts to teach my children, but it seems all my efforts are going to waste,” he said.
Iflah and Mehran are not alone. There are thousands of children with disabilities in J&K alone whose education has been badly affected by two consecutive lockdowns – first, after the dilution of Article 370 and then, the outbreak of COVID-19.
Hikmat Syed, a resident of Verinag, is a visually impaired student studying in Class 9. Before August 5 last year, she would record lectures of teachers on her mobile phone to listen to them later and study at her own pace at home. However, this pandemic has hit her hard. “I could not study since COVID-19 broke out. Education of children with disabilities has been badly hit. We can’t study online,” she said.
Her father is equally worried. “She used to be provided with material in Braille script. Even if schools are open after the lockdown, it will be a real challenge for the children with disabilities. They don’t know how to prevent infection,” shared her father, Mohammad Yaseen, who works at a private medical shop and has worked hard towards providing his daughter with quality education. “I even sold some land for her treatment, but doctors said she is unlikely to be able to see,” Mohammad said. He has two more children, who are do have disabilities.
Similarly, 15-year-old Zehra Manzoor of Kanderpora in Anantnag has a visual impairment. After passing her Class 8 examination, she could not take admission in Class 9 due to the coronavirus. “Zehra is an intelligent child but her education has been severely affected due to this pandemic,” her uncle said. “When children without disabilities are unable to study online, then how can one expect children with disabilities to study efficiently through this virtual medium?”
A recent survey conducted by Swabhiman, a community-based organisation working for the rights of persons with disabilities, revealed that about 43% of children with disabilities in various states including Jammu and Kashmir are planning to drop out of school due to difficulties faced by during online education.
Forty-four-year-old Javaid Ahmad Tak, chairperson of Humanity Welfare Organisation Helpline, which working with students with disabilities in Kashmir, said that children who are blind and deaf have been detached from their studies since COVID-19 broke out.
“These children can’t even download the online applications and they are unable to study via the online mood as there is no sign language. This has severely affected their mental health,” said Tak. He added that although the school authorities have reduced the syllabus by 30% for students, this doesn’t take into consideration the needs of children with disabilities. According to him, there are 1,20,000 children with disabilities in J&K, of which more than 40,000 children are enrolled in schools in Kashmir. A large proportion of this number belongs to low-income families who are unable to afford a smartphone for online studies of their children.
The government had earlier appointed 58 resource persons in J&K under a Centrally-sponsored scheme, who were responsible for teaching children with disabilities in schools. “Most among them left as they were paid a meagre salary and preferred to work in other departments,” said Tak, who believes that society is doing an injustice to such children.
Tak runs his own school for children with disabilities in south Kashmir. “Our school has been holding classes for students of Class 9 and 10 on alternate days to complete the syllabus. However, the students of other classes have detached themselves from studies,” he lamented. He said there should be special schools in every district for children with disabilities.
Javed, who has physical disabilities himself, has spent years working with people with disabilities. Recently, his NGO, in collaboration with a Bangalore-based philanthropic initiative, organised an inclusive drawing competition at the Government Degree College, Anantnag. A cricket match was also played between cricketers with visual disabilities, as a way to reduce their mental stress.
Asgar Samoon, principal secretary, who was recently transferred from the education department to the skill development department in J&K, admitted that education of children with disabilities has been badly hit in the Valley and agreed that to cater to the needs of such children, special schools should be built. (The Wire)