Amid a pandemic that engulfed almost the entire world and a lockdown, it became extremely difficult to manage the learning needs of blind and visually impaired children. COVID-19 and the mandated social distancing disrupted the traditional ways of teaching for blind and the sighted equally. The challenges however were manifold when it came to reaching blind children in remote regions of the country for continuing inclusive education—a key programme of Sightsavers.
Sightsavers aims to promote a positive and enabling environment in schools, families as well as communities to support the holistic education of children with visual impairment (CWVIs). Enablement is facilitated by availability of assistive devices and accessible educational material, provision of compensatory skills training, infrastructure accessibility and building education management and leadership among others.
The HCL Foundation supported Inclusive Education programme is being implemented in five districts of three States i.e. Jehanabad & Bhagalpur in Bihar, Jhalawar & Udaipur in Rajasthan and Howrah in West Bengal. This is a five year project which started in 2018. The major activities under this project include sensitisation of Government officials on disability and inclusion, provision of aids & appliances (Braille Kits and other various devices) and ICT devices (Mobile and Laptop) for CWVIs, training of CWVIs on ICT and other devices, regular field support to CWVIs through trained personnel’s, low vision assessment and low vision devices to CWVIs, teachers training on Inclusive Pedagogy and ICT, Masters trainers training, strengthening SMSA Block Resource Centre (BRCs) into Digital Learning Empowerment Centre (DLEC) by provisioning of ICT and other essential materials, and Learning Assessment of CWVIs.
Since the inception of this project, Government officials at State and District level have been sensitized on disability and inclusion under this project. Under the HCL supported IE project, Master trainers have been prepared who are now providing training in all part of the state to general teachers of Government schools on Inclusive Pedagogy & ICT. In two districts of Bihar we have directly trained more than 250 teachers on Inclusive pedagogy and ICT.
Mobility challenge and lack of access to conventional educational learning environment for the blind amidst the lockdown posed a greater threat to pushing sections of people with visual impairment towards marginalisation. The social distancing norms led to a kind of self-isolation which creates more learning and mental well-being challenges. Given the challenging situation, online and tele-education mode seemed like a viable solution to help several children with visual impairment who are struggling to learn in their remotely located homes in villages and small towns.
When planning interventions for continuing education, children with disability are often forgotten. In order to mainstream children with visual impairment, Sightsavers in the state of Bihar brainstormed to ensure inclusive learning even during the lockdown. The Inclusive Education programme of Sightsavers is supported by HCL Foundation in the state. Sightsavers in Bihar introduced a Tele-education Model for CWVIs under its Inclusive Education programme for assisting them in their regular learning process using available resources.
An online pedagogy approach was adopted which focused on teaching CWVIs through one-on-one telephonic calls or group con-calls for CWVIs of the same class. This approach was adapted in two Districts of Bihar, Bhagalpur and Jehanabad, as a pilot project during mid of April 2020. It started with 33 children in April which has now reached 54 CWVIs, 38 from Bhagalpur & 16 from Jehanabad, by the end of May 2020. The 54 students are among the 64 children who were provided with Mobile/Laptops before the lockdown period, the remaining have either moved away, passed out or were unreachable. Success of covering almost all our direct beneficiary for the project led us towards advocacy proposal for scaling up this initiative for the entire state of Bihar.
Making children with visual impairment the centre of our approach, Sightsavers in the HCL supported Inclusive Education programme set out clear goals and objectives for the lockdown tele-education intervention. The basic idea was that curriculum-based education should continue for CWVIs during the lockdown period. It included enhancing the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) skills of children with visual impairment.
The first step entailed contacting children on the basis of our database. In the COVID-19 situation, previous rapport building measures with community members, guardians, children and the resource teachers acted as a key factor to contact these children. Children were contacted using the registered phone numbers of their parents/guardians. Resource Teachers also supported along with in contacting these children. The snowballing technique also came in force, i.e. children helped to get in touch with other children.
The main tool used were mobile phones of parent/guardian of CWVIs including both smartphones and basic phones. During the project period, before lockdown, Sightsavers had provided Mobile phones, Laptop, Tabs, and Daisy players to visually impaired children and had trained them on using the same for their educational purpose. The ICT devices provided by Sightsavers also aided in their learning process as they were loaded with textbooks in e-pub format, but these devices did not act as primary devices.
Initial counselling sessions with parents and children were scheduled to motivate them to create a learning environment for Online/Telephonic Education for the children. The focus was on teaching CWVIs their regular curriculum along with the use of ICT devices and Braille reading writing and practices of other arithmetic devices. Special classes for children who need extra support in understanding concepts were also taken up on individual basis.
Based on the classes in which the children already are enrolled in their schools, study groups were formed. These groups had children for class seven, class eight, class nine, class ten and beyond. Each class session was scheduled for a duration of 40-45 minutes covering a specific topic.
All Inclusive Education project staff (under the HCL project) of Bihar, i.e. district project coordinators and ICT coordinators directly supported as a tutor and facilitator for visually impaired children. Subjects taught were English, Hindi, Science, Social Science and General Knowledge, they were also trained on using ICT devices for studying the same.
Children were provided with Audio Books, Vidyavahini app (a Bihar govt initiated app for accessible learning content), Unnayan- mera mobile mera Vidyalaya (a UNICEF initiative app), audio-video clips (developed by Sightsavers project staffs), curriculum based tutorial notes and YouTube based learning content. Efforts were made to ensure CWVI are facilitated with accessible learning materials for their respective new class.
Sightsavers developed a multi-level monitoring mechanism involving parents’ feedback, Sightsavers personnel-level monitoring, Resource Teacher level monitoring and feedback from children.
Weekly Review of the initiative has been a feature from the first week of the intervention, to discuss progress made, difficulties faced and strategies to overcome problems and measure success. Weekly work progress narrative report and student progress reports prepared by Sightsavers were shared with SPM and SPO(IE), Bihar Education Project Council.
Witnessing the success of the model in the two districts of Bihar, Sightsavers realised how important it is for this learning to reach children with visual impairment in the entire state of Bihar. Sightsavers shared weekly progress reports of tele-education initiative with Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC) along with the concept, goal, methodology of implementation and benefits of the model. The success of the model led us towards our advocacy agenda and a concept note, named SANKALP (Special approach for need-based knowledge and learning programme), which was submitted to BEPC for their review. This document advocated for scale-up of the model covering children with all types of disability not limiting to children with visual impairment alone, and for initiating similar online education model for children with disability across Bihar by assigning Resource Teachers in the teaching process.
SANKALP the tele-education model for children with special needs (CWSN), is now being implemented across all 38 districts of Bihar. It is cost-effective, and students get to learn in the confines of their comfort zone. There are 1,078 resource teachers and persons in the state and all of them are now associated with the online education model of the project to deliver quality education to children with disability. The pan-Bihar tele education model began from 18th May 2020 with each resource teacher responsible for educating at least 5 CWSNs, thus covering 5,390 children in the state.
There always are some gaps to fill, but without losing sight we have to walk the path of where there’s a will there’s a way. And as Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”.
CEO, Sightsavers India