During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent nationwide lockdowns, non-disabled people experienced restrictions, limitations and exclusion. The world’s 1.3 billion people with disabilities (PwDs) were no strangers to such restrictions, however, and now face further challenges. Perhaps the worst affected are students with disabilities who are also at high risk of infection. They continue to be denied education due to stigma and discrimination that excludes the majority of disabled citizens from mainstream education systems.
The COVID-19 lockdown has hindered not only access to education but also the social interactions of students with disabilities. Below I explore this impact of the COVID-19 lockdown in India on the academic and social lives of students with disabilities, based on telephone interviews with, and written responses from, 11 students with various disabilities enrolled in high schools, colleges and universities. Their mean age is 20.81. The cohort is diverse in terms of caste, class and geographical location. Names of participants have been changed to maintain anonymity.
In India, nearly 1.82% of the population between the ages of 10-19 is disabled (“Census of India 2011: Disabled population”, 2014). As per the 2001 census, 35.29% of all the population with disabilities are children (CHILDLINE India Foundation’s report, 2008). The question of disability intersects with those of caste, class, religion, gender and race. Further, each disability involves its own specific needs. For a person with an intellectual disability, the concept of wearing a mask might seem intimidating, while for the deaf-blind touch is a very crucial aspect of everyday navigation, which we are now told to avoid. Having a disability in itself may not be a risk factor for Covid-19, but people with specific disabilities or chronic conditions are certainly more vulnerable.
Students with disabilities have always faced academic inaccessibility, be it restriction of movement related to accessing buildings, or non-availability of literature. Manya, a Masters’ student expressed how the inaccessible buildings hampered her movement as she was unable to access the designated classrooms, and they had to be shifted to the ground floor for her. Rayam, an engineering student, had to be carried to certain laboratories that were not accessible for him. While this was the case in the pre-COVID-19 era, students, especially those with visual impairment, expressed their concern in not being able to study due to the non-availability of the required texts or software.
Keshav, a high school student in Dehradun, spoke about the anxiety he faced due to unavailability of study materials. He was about to appear for his 12th standard final examinations when the pandemic began. The main source of income at Keshav’s home is a menial disability pension. He had to venture outdoors to visit cyber-cafes to be able to study and to appear for online examinations, thereby putting their health at greater risk. Access to the internet and laptop is another issue for students such as Mukesh, a visually impaired student, and Kartik who has cerebral palsy.
Educational institutes are also sites of socialisation that play a formative role in the social life of students. Peer interaction through participation in support groups, extra-curricular activities or student clubs helps in forming an important support system (see e.g. Koster, Nakken, Pijl and Houten, 2009; Koster, Nakken, Pijl and Houten, 2009; Farell, 2000). Consider Lavanya, a 28-year-old scholar with visual impairment who is currently working on her Ph.D. At home, she is constantly suffering conflicts with her family. She reassures herself saying that they are uneducated and do not understand her, but she misses her friends with whom she can share her anxiety and seek comfort. While she does call them, this does not replace the comfort of meeting them. She feels trapped at home and wants to head back to student housing.
Kaif, a 19-year-old boy from Kashmir, has other problems. He studies at a school in Dehradun, and the lockdown is the longest time that he has been at home after he started living at the school hostel. The politically volatile environment in his hometown, along with the academic inaccessibility that he is facing has put him under a lot of stress. Due to the limited internet service in Kashmir, he is unable to stay in touch with his friends or indulge in any group activities with his classmates. Even during our telephone interview, the line got disconnected several times. Meanwhile, Khushi, who is partially deaf-blind feels that she is a burden to her family due to her increased dependence on her mother and her sister for everyday tasks during the lockdown.
Significantly, this is not the case with all those who were interviewed. Those who enjoyed privilege due to social, economic, and gender identities were able to engage themselves with activities over the past year. Tapan, who completed his law degree this year has been shuffling his time between organising webinars, devoting time to an NGO that he is a part of, and writing articles for publication. Similarly, Rayam has been engaged in completing various online courses, working freelance and also devoting a couple of hours every day in online gaming with his friends. Manya experiences no pressure to dedicate herself to household chores so instead dedicates her time to online internships, workshops and webinars. She recognises herself as an “achiever” and always strives to utilise her time for maximum growth for personal and professional development.
An important aspect touched on by almost all the respondents, however, was the vulnerable state of the disabled population insofar as their medical needs put them at risk of contagion. After the sudden announcement of the countrywide lockdown, accessing medicines or physiotherapy became tough.
Students with disabilities have been academically as well as socially affected by the lockdown. Since disability is not a homogenous category, the impact on each individual varied. The intersectionalities of class, gender, and geographical location are also determining factors, wherein it is clear that it is more difficult for female disabled students to be at home for a long time, as they are more often expected to contribute to household chores, and receive less emotional support from their family.
A year having passed since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded, it is important to acknowledge the issues of people and students with disabilities. Rebuilding the world in the post-COVID era would also require us to devise solutions to tackle academic exclusivity, and ensure social inclusivity through integration, accessibility and participation.
CHILDLINE India Foundation. (2008). Challenging Boundaries: A Study on Mentally Challenged Children (p. 12). CHILDLINE India Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.childlineindia.org/uploads/files/20200316114059_Challenging_the_Boundaries.pdf
Census of India 2011: Disabled population. (2014). Retrieved 19 November 2020, from https://enabled.in/wp/census-of-india-2011-disabled-population/
Farrell, P. (2000). The impact of research on developments in inclusive education. International Journal Of Inclusive Education, 4(2), 153-162. DOI: 10.1080/136031100284867
Koster, M., Nakken, H., Pijl, S. J., & van Houten, E. (2009). Being Part of the Peer Group: A Literature Study Focusing on the Social Dimension of Inclusion in Education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 13(2), 117-140.
New Delhi, India
Mridula Muralidharan is a Masters’ student at Centre for Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests are education, disability, gender and rural development. She also volunteers with the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) and manages their Instagram page @nprd.in. Contact: email@example.com, Twitter: @mridula_97.