If you thought that being cramped at home and having to do their classes online was affecting children in general, children with special needs have been affected worse. While the issues remain the same, the impact on students who have reading and learning disabilities and need special care has been far more permanent. Some might have regressed to where they were a year back and parents and experts believe, life might not ever be the same for them.
But why has it been so bad for them?
A lack of peer interaction, not having a routine to stick to and not being able to step out has made things much worse for kids with special needs. “The whole experience of going to school is what the child learns from — travelling on a school bus, interacting with friends, how to manage your things. The child learns from all of this,” said Rashmi Wankhede, a parent of a dyslexic child and a special educator. “All of this has a huge impact on the development of the child. But due to the pandemic, all of this has suddenly stopped. They are now stuck inside the house,” she added.
Are online classes rolling back the progress?
A child with issues like dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) needs more attention than other kids. It is very important that they can see the teacher and follow their body language and online classes have completely taken it away from them. They feel lost in front of the screen — with numerous windows open in front of them. Most of these children have two major issues, Dr Dhaval Mody, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. “They find it difficult to move at the pace of online education. Most education provided to the child is curriculum-based, which the child finds difficult and are demotivated since their level of proficiency does not match that of the curriculum. To solve this it is imperative to provide a multi-sensory learning environment that has components of reading, listening and writing delivered over a blended learning approach,” said the doctor who is also the Founder and CEO of SpEd@home, an organisation that provides support to children with special needs. “The biggest challenge that parents face is the disinterest towards education these children have, due to an absolute lack of motivation. The sudden shift has made it more difficult for these children who already struggle to match the pace of class and learning,” he added.
Online classes are almost impossible to attend for someone with ADHD. “It’s like there are so many television screens in front of him and the child does not know which one to look at,” said Dr Anu Neil, a mother of a youngster who has ADHD. “If he was in class, the teacher would have noticed his body language and understood that something is amiss. Through Zoom (or any other VC platform), the teachers can’t see what the kids are doing and they often switch off their camera and I find him doing something else,” said Dr Anu, who also has a four-year-old who needs help with his classes.
In a typical physical class, the kids had a 360° vision of the classroom while with online classes their concentration has to be on a screen that is only inches wide. This causes severe restlessness. “It is very difficult to make younger kids sit in one place for too long. It’s worse when they have to attend a 40-minute class on a screen,” Rashmi added.
Children who are dyslexic and have trouble writing are also among the worst affected, said Niveditha Warrier, a dyslexic research scholar who is in the second year of her PhD research in Disability Studies in a university in Kerala. “When it comes to dysgraphic students, they face a lot of challenges when it comes to online classes. They are often not able to read and understand the letters or even see them on the screen,” she added. “These children need to see the teachers and understand their mannerisms to completely understand what they are saying. People like us, we observe and absorb. Physical classes are always better for us,” said Niveditha.
On top of that, they need occupational therapy, which helps them learn easier and faster — it helps the kids resolve their physical, sensory and cognitive issues. But for this, they need to be physically present with the child, which is not possible during the pandemic. “All of that has stopped now. Even stepping out of the house helped, as a part of their occupational therapy, but that is not possible now,” said Rashmi.
Just how much have people regressed?
Children with special needs have different kinds of needs, said Mridula Govindaraju, mother of a dyslexic teenager in Chennai. “Some of them need occupational therapy. If that’s not available then it affects their learning. These classes have not shifted online. But you can only do so much virtually. You need an occupational therapist to look at you at least once a week. They need that physical therapy. They need feedback to see their improvement. There is actually regression now,” she added.
Dr Anu also added that her child has regressed a bit over the past few months as well. “He was improving very well and in 2019 I had weaned him off his shadow teacher, his teacher’s assistant. he was also behaving well with his classmates and was becoming independent. But now, he has regressed a bit — he needs to have somebody next to him to make him write. It has gone backwards,” she added.
Money, money, money, honey
The parents should be invested n the child’s life to really help them, said Mridula. “Our country is not so progressive like developed nations where the state has set up certain strictures and stipulations and it seamlessly gets woven into the education system. the parents need to be educated first. Then they need to know that the child needs certain amounts of help and props at home. Not all parents can do this. During the pandemic, the parents too are going through a lot and dealing with anxiety. Parents have not been able to give the right amount of attention and many of them have even given up,” said Mridula.
The pandemic has also caused financial distress across strata. This has affected the education of these children, at a time when their educational journey was already costlier owing to occupational therapy and extra charges from the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) accredited centres. “During the pandemic, 50 per cent of the students have dropped out silently. All of summer nothing happened. The parents were busy coping with the pandemic and the kids were missing their classes,” added another parent based in Chennai. “The special centres are also very expensive. While the fees are close to Rs 1.5 lakh, some even demand a one-time donation of Rs 4 lakh or more,” he said and added that it has become extremely difficult for the parents to afford such expensive education along with occupational therapy, which is also quite costly.
Have the governments helped?
While both the central and state governments have spoken about and brought out schemes for transitioning the education system online — from apps to portals from the schools and colleges and even classes via TV — there has been no effort made to help these children. The effort was scarce even in the pre-COVID era, as parents told us. “Nobody has done anything. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are the states which have a robust system for individuals with special needs. Despite that, nothing has trickled down. The policies are centre-driven, how they are implemented is on the states. The centre has completely forgotten about people with special needs,” said a parent who did not wish to be named.
The issues might be the same as any other student across the globe, but the effect on kids who have special needs or suffer from learning liabilities is manifold. The regression has already started and they might never come back from that.