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Education amid Covid

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BANDA—We don’t have reliable and affordable ICT

Both the door and the window have closed at once for Charity, an 11-year-old learner with disability at Mtenthera Full Primary School on the outskirts of Lilongwe City.

Charity says the closure of schools due to the spike in Covid cases has not only denied her right to education but also access to basic services such as the meal programme, assistive technologies, access to resource personnel and water, sanitation and hygiene interventions.

“I come from a poor family, which usually struggles to provide for my nutrition [through school meals] and hearing aids. But with schools closed, I can’t access these services,” she explains.

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Charity is among thousands of learners with disabilities who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic in Malawi and the whole world.

Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma) representative for Lilongwe, Charles Banda, says Covid preventive measures have forced 1.5 billion students out of school.

Banda says 20 percent of these are learners with disabilities, who were already out of school because of the pandemic.

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He made the sentiments during a training workshop for school heads and Primary Education Advisors (PEAs) from Lilongwe Rural East Education Division, which Emmanuel Teachers’ Training College (TTC) organised through its three-year project – Disability Inclusiveness Sanitation Hygiene and Environmental Conservation (Dishe).

The project, which is being implemented with financial support from a German charity organisation called ‘Bread for the World’ seeks to promote inclusive education in the districts of Dedza and Lilongwe.

Banda disclosed that learners with disabilities are already left behind and Covid has just presented novel challenges to them.

“The emergence of Covid has simply compounded the situation since we don’t have reliable and affordable ICT [information, communication and technology] services to facilitate online teaching and learning,” he said.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes persons with disabilities and has thus opened doors for their participation and recognition as active contributing members of society: who must not face any discrimination or be left out or behind.

Yet the World Health Organisation and the World Bank estimate that in some countries, a disability of any sort in a child more than doubles the chance of never enrolling in school.

The two institutions estimate that one in three out-of-school children have a disability.

But Dishe Project Manager Silas Kathyole said all children deserve a quality education, but acknowledged that far too many children with disabilities are left behind and continue to face various challenges to access education.

Kathyole said students with disabilities are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions, lack support, access to the internet, accessible software and learning materials is likely to deepen the gap for students with disabilities.

He warned that this could get worse if the government does not mainstream disability in its Covid response programmes.

“Children with disabilities have been deprived of physical learning opportunities, social and emotional support available in schools and extra services such as school meals. During the implementation of this project, we have learnt that there are a number of gaps, which have led to poor performance of learners with disability. The gaps include non-friendly infrastructure, mobility, inadequate teaching and learning materials, stigma and discrimination,” he explained.

He further disclosed that Covid has led to a sudden shift in the role of the parent/caregiver to act simultaneously as their teachers, in addition to exacerbating the digital divide between learners related to access to equipment, electricity, and the internet.

Kathyole stated that students with disabilities may also be at increased risk of contracting Covid because information about the disease, including the symptoms and prevention, are not provided in accessible formats such as print materials in Braille, captions, audio provision, and graphics.

In their homesteads, students with disabilities have more healthcare needs than the able-bodied – both standard needs and needs linked to impairments – and are therefore more vulnerable to the impact of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others, he said.

“Compared to persons without disabilities, persons with disabilities are more likely to have poor health. It is therefore vitally important that we step up our efforts to enable children with disabilities to fulfil their true potential and Dishe is one such a project initiated to spearhead the promotion of the rights of learners with disabilities with or without the pandemic,” said Kathyole.

The Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, Patricia Kaliati, admitted that the global crisis of Covid is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting that work on disability inclusion is imperative.

Kaliati said people with disabilities—one billion people in total—are one of the most excluded groups in our society and are among the hardest hit in this crisis in terms of fatalities.

She therefore emphasized that as Covid continues to bring forth wide-reaching impacts on the socioeconomic strata of nations, the government and its stakeholders should note how persons with disabilities are uniquely impacted by the pandemic, including health, education, and transport considerations.

She said as public transport systems reduce or stop services due to Covid, persons with disabilities who rely on these methods for accessible transport may not be able to travel, even for basic necessities or critical medical appointments.

The minister further stated that poverty could be another factor that may increase the risk of disability through malnutrition, inadequate access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, a polluted environment, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation.

“Generally, persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates. In the area of health, many persons with disabilities have additional underlying health needs that make them particularly vulnerable to severe symptoms of Covid, if they contract it,” said the minister.

In 2018, the United Nations (UN) launched the first-ever UN flagship report on disability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Disability and Development Report on the “Realization of the Sustainable Development Goals by, for and with persons with disabilities”.

The report demonstrates that persons with disabilities are at a disadvantage regarding most SDGs.

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