Schools perform many functions outside of education. They provide a safe haven, a social arena, and, for families with children with special needs, they offer vital one-to-one support. Online learning, by comparison, is simply not up to the task. So what about their right to an education?
Many websites and programmes are simply not accessible for blind or deaf students. As the 2020 GEM Report on inclusion will show, we have the technology to ensure that visually impaired students can study in mainstream schools and to use online studying materials in different formats, such as scanned versions that convert texts into sound or Braille characters – and some countries already do this. With schools closed around the world, some teachers are going the extra mile, using video conferencing to try and teach Braille, as this example from Canada describes. But, this is the exception rather than the rule. And it is not sustainable.
Aside from technology matters, for children with even mild learning difficulties, such as attention deficit disorders, finding the self-motivation to work independently in front of a computer is a major challenge. Learning aside, losing the daily routine that school provides adds a significant layer of difficulty for learners with disabilities who are sensitive to change, such as those with autism spectrum disorder. To combat this, in Argentina, despite the lock down, special dispensation is given to parents of children with autism who are allowed to take their children on short car rides. But is this enough?
Not only the routine, but the therapy often provided in education environments are a hugely important part of the support many of these students receive. In China, not only schools, but also training and care services for children with special education needs were scaled back to reduce infection risks. In Argentina, various services supporting learners with disabilities have been suspended for the foreseeable future: therapeutic education centers, early childhood education and stimulation, basic education, educational support, support teacher services, services to help school integration, special schools.
This has raised concerns amongst many families affected. In Australia, for example, a survey of 200 families conducted by Children and Young People with Disability Australia and the Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education said that there was limited understanding about how social distancing would affect student support services.
An impact assessment in the United Kingdom by Disability Rights UK, an advocacy group, reached similar conclusions: ‘The government must treat our essential social care service as key infrastructure, alongside the [National Health Service]’ it said “and as such it must immediately provide the necessary funding to keep this vital service running.” Another UK-based NGO, Learning Disability England, has written to the minister of health calling for the coronavirus bill to be amended ‘to make sure the rights and entitlements of all disabled adults and children are not undermined’.
The United States is coming into the firing line for considering dismissing rights by waiving portions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the Covid-19 pandemic. Under this law, students with disabilities have the right to an appropriate education. But Senate Republicans have called for the minister of education to prepare a report to Congress outlining any special education obligations that she thinks school districts should be temporarily freed from during the emergency. In current circumstances, and faced with school closures, some districts feel they are unable to meet their requirements and so are simply giving up. The Northshore School District in the suburbs of Seattle, for instance, tried online learning for a week and concluded it was unable to offer students with significant disabilities the services they need.
When asked about the education rights of students with disabilities, the French minister of education said: ‘The question we have to ask is how they can be supported. Most of the time, it is parents who will do that. But it is true that there may be some calls for support, that people could be called to help with. It should be looked at on a case by case basis’.
While there are many differences between Ebola and Covid-19, there are also many similarities and lessons that can be drawn. In Sierra Leone, during the Ebola epidemic, Humanity & Inclusion, an international NGO, switched into emergency mode. It started to use community-based rehabilitation volunteers to reach out to the children with disabilities in their homes. They distributed radios, to help students catch up on classes, and helped make sure children would return to schools once they re-opened. Not only did they continue the one-on-one support, in other words, but they also found new modes of education to meet their needs.
The nature of social distancing is clearly outright damaging for many students with disabilities who require the exact opposite: a strong, close-knit network of people supporting often multiple and complex needs. It must be recognised that these needs amount to essential requirements and should not be overlooked in times of crises, precisely when their continuity is most needed. Looking at it on a case by case basis may be the most practical way forward when it comes to assigning audiovisual aids or carving out exceptions to decrees on country lock downs, but blanket dismissals of their education rights must be strongly opposed.