generally speaking, Education of children with disabilities General Comment No. 4 on Article 24 issued in 2016 by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defined inclusion as, “a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences” (Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2016, p. 4). While there is a lot of debate on what it means to have an inclusive education system in many countries. we shall put this aspect in to the context of the pandemic that is desolating the globe.
The cases of COVID-19 in global south rared its head in March 2020 and this set the presidences o the countries shutting down to restriction the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This included closure of many amenities which included markets, airports, all institutions o learning.
Because of the pandemic, most educational institutions were directed by the ministry of educations to shift to online learning.
Never the less most institutions started from scratch to develop online platforms and which never existed in the global south. Although some institutions had basic online distance learning but this round, they had to establish robust network and infrastructure to cater for the demand.
On the other hand, my experiential learning reminded me of the vast and robust Australian education platforms which had started early online learning sessions.
This was before the COVID had hit the globe.
Notably, students with disabilities from the global south were hit in multiple fronts. This ranged from the systemic and structural fiascos to cater for search inclusive needs.
Worst still, most government entities were ill prepared for this calamity
Instructively, students in many global south schools did not obtain printed learning materials. Thus, having a more negative impact. Most of them didn’t get documentation in alternative formats. This was coupled with lack of access to the assistive technologies that they used to borrow from the library.
This aggravated the long prevalent challenges faced by these group of students in an open distance learning setting even prior to the pandemic.
According to studies by UNICEF, UNESCO, world bank, IE forums, in the low income countries have demonstrated that some students with disabilities received limited support, have high dropout rates and in some instance, take long to complete the degrees.
As disability sausage media We initiated monitoring of Kenyan 20WhatsApp groups operated by persons with disabilities.
80 percent of the WhatsApp group were operated by men with disabilities while 20 % were operated by women with disabilities.
we found out that in the haste to comply with the lockdown restrictions, university management focused on bridging the educational distance between itself and the majority of students and in the process excluded the minority group of students with disabilities.
Our observations included the following:
The first was digital literacy. Students reported that they did not have computer literacy and online learning skills. They normally used printed learning materials but could not access them under lockdown.
Secondly, Students also mentioned the difficulty of studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They felt the university did not accommodate their disabilities. This exclusion was exacerbated by COVID-19 and they could not conduct their scientific experiments from home.
Our third observation, was loss of human dignity. Students felt that staff were insensitive to their needs. So, they lost their dignity due to this disregard.
Lack of reasonable accommodation during completing of online assessments. The assessment process was designed to cut off after a fixed time, but this wasn’t sufficient for students with disabilities. And it couldn’t be adjusted until staff with the necessary skills were allowed back on campus. Students also worked with the support staff to negotiate with lecturers and the assessment center to allow alternative means of submitting the assessments.
Fourthly, Challenges in the information and communication technology systems were another theme. They ranged from inadequate hardware and software provision to aesthetic design that met the needs of disabled students.
Students could not get materials in accessible formats such as Braille. This was also worsened by the lack of compatibility between mainstream technological platforms and assistive technologies.
As disability sausage media we opine, there is a misconception that because a student has a disability, they know how to use assistive technologies.
Some students that had recently acquired the disability or had been using traditional Braille could not acquire the required digital skills while isolated under lockdown.
Fifthly, there were also logistical problems. We found there were problems in converting and delivering printed learning materials into accessible electronic formats for students with disabilities. This was due to inflexible procurement procedures. The university could not provide services such as Braille conversion of study material and examination papers for remote delivery and online examination.
Sixthly, some students with disabilities came from far flank areas where even transport is a challenge.
Conspicuously, Lecturers were ill-prepared to work with students with disabilities who are already limited by lockdown. Lecturers were not well prepared to design and execute strategies for online teaching and learning. There was a glaring gap in the training of teachers in relation to dealing with students with disabilities.
Consequently, students with disabilities bore the brunt of the pandemic. They could not access study and assessment materials and their already overwhelmed teachers were ill prepared for the “added” demands of preparing “special materials”.
The preliminary findings of our project point to an urgent need for collaboration among educators, government and the private sector particularly as we wrestle with COVID-19. To prevent further drop-outs, lecturers need to acquire more inclusive digital teaching so students with disabilities can also complete their qualifications and live sustainable lives.
Universities can, for example, partner with the corporate sector to subsidize inclusive teacher training and reskilling initiatives. Failure to transform teacher training strategies could lead to an even higher dropout rate for students with disabilities. It could also lead to the delayed realization of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This right entails ensuring “the provision of an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.
To ensure that students have positive learning experiences and complete their qualifications, higher education institutions need to respond to the learning needs of all students.
The teacher training curriculum must change to prepare academics for current societal realities. Teaching and learning in the digital age require all academics to constantly undergo training on learning design for online teaching and assessment. Training must consider the needs of diverse learners.
Flexibility is needed in procurement procedures and teaching strategies. And higher education institutions need to be more innovative to meet challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments need to view education as a basic necessity and give teachers and academic staff the status of essential services.
Lastly, teachers need to familiarize themselves with the Universal Design for Learning principles. This is meant to open curriculum design and teaching platforms to accommodate diverse learning needs.
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The views expressed here are for the author and do not represent any agency or organization.
Mugambi Paul is a public policy, researcher, diversity, inclusion and sustainability expert.
Australian Chief Minister Award winner
“Excellence of making inclusion happen”