The national lockdown initiated to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic since June 2021 has negatively affected children living with disabilities as they have been excluded from online education.
As a result of the lockdown, schools were closed with the government encouraging learners to adopt online learning. While the move is standard under the prevailing covid-19 conditions, the move was not done cognisant of the peculiar needs of children with disabilities. Digital technology has become central to human activity and interaction, business and academic included, but what remains to be seen are strategies and efforts of incorporating vulnerable members of the communities to be active digital natives. In the end, this has widened the gap between members from humble backgrounds and the disabled. Technology which is meant to enhance easy access to education, has become a exclusionary tool for vulnerable members in society.
Deaf Zimbabwe Trust Communications Officer Tinotenda Chikunya said that, the sudden switch to online learning has greatly affected children with special needs since most of the students rely on in person learning and specialised gadgets.
“Children with disabilities have challenges with online learning because data is very expensive for the parents with children with disabilities. They come from disadvantaged background and children with disabilities require specialised computers for example, laptops which can talk back for children with visual impairments and those who are deaf also need special laptops and interpreters to help them with sign language, converting words such as mathematics, physics etc. If we don’t have the interpreters it becomes difficult for them to conduct home schooling,” she said.
Chikunya further noted that online lessons are also a challenge for children with disabilities since they are easily agitated. She added that they are easily annoyed by focusing on one subject for a long time hence the need for specialised assistance from professionals but sadly parents and relatives are struggling to fill that gap. Some school environments has invested Different routines whereas at school there are teachers, specialist and therapists to assist.
“Online lessons have been very difficult and almost impossible for children living with disability during the lockdown and they have been greatly left behind since most parents do not afford requirements needed. Handling of children with disabilities especially when doing online work is very difficult for parents since these require specialised tutors,” she said.
Chikunya urged the government to allow teachers who teach children with special needs to interact with their students even during lockdown. “They also need to send study packs and different materials to the parents or short videos in sign languages to assist them so that they are not completely left behind”, she reiterated.
Disability Activist Nokutenda Muzuva concurred with Chikunya and emphasised that, children with disabilities need face to face teaching because they might not understand online lessons. She said most of them have learning disabilities and most parents will not be there to assist since they also need to go to work.
“Children with disabilities are facing a hard time in conducting online lessons because most of them cannot afford the gadgets and data to use. Some of them also require medical assistance which becomes difficult for parents to cater for them and also afford online learning therefore face to face teachings would greatly assist them since they might not understand through online learning,” she said.
Muzuva alluded to the fact that it is almost impossible for children with disabilities to be involved in online lessons since most of them are taken to centres or special schools
“Most children with disabilities stopped accessing quality education when schools closed four months back and that was that for them. They were never given the assistance to learn online and are very behind,” she said.
Muzuva reinforced the call for government to provide free data and specialised gadgets for children with disabilities. He also said that the government should allow teachers to teach students with disabilities through face to face so that they are not left out especially now during covid-19 lockdown where most students are having their studies online.
Speaking to this publication, a Gokwe family chronicled the dailies hurdles of making sure children with disabilities have access to education especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My child Tawananyasha Mapariri is now 9 years old and also suffers from autism and epilepsy. His life is depended on medication which in my current state of poverty, I cannot afford. Assisting him to access education online becomes an impossibility ad an added burden for me due to the financial demands associated with such. For physical lessons, he can hardly speak and can only utter two words; Mama and that of his sister Trish.
“He cannot relieve himself hence we always use diapers on him and you know the costs of such. His father abandoned him because of the disability and we have no one to assist. It is my plea that fellow citizens reach out to us and help assist my child”, said Jerita Ruhinga mother to Tawananyasha.
According to the 2019 Annual Education Statistics report there were 85 560 learners with impairments in the country. Visual impairment is the second common disability at the secondary school while hearing impairment is commonest at both levels of schooling. Physical and communication speech have higher proportions at primary and secondary education.
Minister of Physically Challenged and Vulnerable groups (Disability Affairs), Emmanuel Muzanenhamo said online lessons have posed a serious challenge to students with disabilities with those in the rural areas completely left out.
“Online lessons have posed a big challenge in as far as advancing the education of SWDs. Their plight has been compounded by the fact in that most of them come from disadvantaged so they lack the requisite electronic devices. Secondly, the cost of data is beyond the reach of many. Thirdly most of SWDs are from rural areas where internet connectivity issues are a reality. Fourthly there are special softwares needed for someone with visual impairment to use a computer. For example, jaws software is costly and many will not be able to fully access these online lectures. SWDs face a number of challenges ranging from discrimination, poverty, historical societal perceptions towards PWDs in general, funding of their education, employment. The government should expedite the implementation of the national disability policy. New legislation has to be put in place as the Disabled person’s Act is now outdated. Also the government should empower PWDs through genuine developmental programs,” he said.
Children with disabilities are still significantly excluded from education and life opportunities. However, recently Zimbabwe government implemented the National Disability Policy to provide free education for primary, secondary and university students who live with disabilities as they try to achieve Sustainable Development goal 4 to ensure inclusive and quality education for all.