“Accessible education is our right,” Tamil Nadu’s vision-impaired students complain of facing exclusion, neglect in online education

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By Shalini S, TwoCircles.net

Chennai: The debate of whether or not e-learning replicates a classroom experience has been of huge significance since Covid-19 lockdown. The narrative of disabled students in this debate has been long absent. Scores of vision-impaired students from different Arts colleges in Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, while talking to TwoCircles.net, recall a collective experience of exclusion in online education. Many of these students expect the reopening of colleges after the Tamil Nadu government announced its approval to reopen educational institutions starting February 8.

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“Online education is merely a supplement and it can never substitute classroom learning,” says Venkatesan, an M.Phil student from Madras Christian College.

Vision impaired students, who are at a higher risk of exclusion, explain the struggle and humiliation they face as a result of online education at the college level. The students express difficulty in finding scribes or volunteers to write their assignments, internals and semester examinations.

Talking to TwoCircles.net, a student from Loyola College in Chennai says, “Once a volunteer asked me for my picture to see if I am really a vision-impaired person. When I refused to send the picture, the person blocked me on WhatsApp. It was a humiliating experience for me.”

The students explain how arranging scribes was difficult during the pandemic lock down. “Usually, the college arranges scribes for us and provides them with compensation. During the lock down, we were exhausted while looking for a scribe, let alone prepare for the exams. Some scribes don’t agree to help without incentives. It’s been very difficult and I am used to it by now,” he said.

The vision-impaired students that TwoCircles.net talked to express resentment against the inaccessibility of certain online portals and websites that are used in online teaching. “In Loyola, we use the LMS portal. It can’t be accessed with Talkback (inbuilt accessibility software in android phones). It always reads ‘not enabled’, certain departments have switched to Google Classroom but some departments, like in Tamil, continue to use LMS where there are a greater number of vision-impaired students,” one of the students said.

“It doesn’t occur to our professors to send accessibility friendly material, they just post scanned PDFs or links. We don’t have open software to read them,” says another student from Soka Ikeda College for Women.

The vision-impaired students explain that they were disappointed at the blunt verbal instructions given in conventional classrooms. “The Professors will not bother to explain what’s being written on the board or projected on the screen,” they said. In online platforms, it is even worse as, “They screen share PPTs and videos most of the time.”

The vision-impaired students had the benefit of recording lectures in audio devices inside classrooms. “However, recording online lectures is difficult as the accessibility software would overlap and create distorted sounds,” says Jeeva, a final year undergraduate student at Loyola College.

Another student is unhappy with the denial of his rights. “I can do my assignments on my own using NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) software on the computer but I am expected to provide written scripts with the help of a scribe. They are curbing my rights to be independent. I thought online education would give us a sense of freedom but I am proven wrong,” the student said.

“They think I am giving excuses not to do my assignment and cash out because of my disability, but I am only demanding my rights to do it in a way that is accessible to me,” the student added.

Associate Professor Dr Sivaraman (VI), Department of English, Presidency College, pointed out that in the guidelines released by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment dated 29 August 2018, suggest that for a vision-impaired student, “Online examination should be in an accessible format i.e., websites, question papers and all other study material should be accessible as per international standards laid down in this regard.”

Dr Sivaraman expressed distress about the struggles impaired students faced during the pandemic. “The decision-making authority in this aspect is Controller of Examination in respective colleges, however, the teaching staff could try to make online education inclusive and accessible for all,” says he.

According to the vision-impaired students, Tamil Nadu government distributed smart mobile phones for vision-impaired students in every district during the lockdown. “As it came with so many criteria, not many were able to benefit from it,” they maintain.

No special guidelines were announced by Directorate of Collegiate Education or the Tamil Nadu government regarding the accessibility of online education for the visually impaired. “The vision-impaired student community has been neglected,” they said.

While studies like ‘Digital education in India: Will students with disabilities miss the bus?’ conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) report the vulnerability of disabled students at the post-secondary level, the disabled students at college level remain underrepresented.

According to G. Udayaraj (VI), Assistant Professor, Madras Christian College, “Online education seems to have exacerbated the existing inequities, sighted professors show sympathy towards the vision-impaired students, but there is no proper sensitization about their capabilities and needs.”

G. Udayaraj told TwoCircles.net that, “Students with vision impairment are considered either lousy or exceptional. It is just these two extremes with no in-betweens and a behavioural change must be brought among educators.”

With the disabled community facing alienation in almost all policies of the Union Government, such as failing the disability sector in National Education Policy, 2020 and Budget 2021, the vision-impaired students see no revolutionary steps taken for them in near future in terms of educational accessibility.

Having too much on their plates, reopening colleges appears to be their only ray of hope.