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COVID-19: Online Learning And Persons With Disabilities

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True to prediction that the Covid -19 pandemic would alter the way of life of people as well as socioeconomic and political systems the world over, Nigeria is already experiencing the change amid the unabated spread of the deadly Coronavirus. With schools still under lock and key and the uncertainty over when the bell will ring for their resumption, the e-learning option is now the in-thing.

So far, most countries, including Nigeria, have adopted lockdowns as the most effective strategy to contain the spread of the deadly virus. The government only recently eased the lockdown to open up the economy that was fast suffocating under the yoke of the stay-at-home order. However, schools, churches and mosques still remain closed as the spread of the virus has rather been on the increase.

However, in order to keep the academic calendar running and minimise loss of time as a result of the lockdown, many schools have embarked on online lessons for their pupils and students. It is safe to surmise that online teaching or meeting has become the new normal. The Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) has held several meetings recently via teleconferencing. Even the last ECOWAS meeting of heads of governments was through teleconferencing.

As the schools, especially  the private ones, adopt online teaching, this newspaper has observed that one very important group of pupils and students has not been taken into consideration-children with disabilities and special needs.

It is significant to note that this group of pupils and students constitute a considerable segment of the population of children across the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO), for instance, has put the population of persons with disabilities worldwide at one billion. Such a huge population cannot be ignored in any planning for educational development. Also, UNICEF in a recent report estimated that there are at least 93 million children with disabilities in the world, but numbers could be much higher.

Nigeria, no doubt, has a sizeable number of children with disabilities. According to a 2017 World Bank study, 80 per cent of the 150 million children with disabilities in the world live in developing countries. The report also said the literacy gap between these children and their able-bodied peers has increased substantially over the last 30 years.

To be sure, children with disabilities or special needs include those who have blindness, speech and hearing impairment, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder among others. Sadly, even in conventional learning arrangements, these set of children have been finding it hard to cope.

According to educeleb, there are only 1,177 full-fledged nursery, primary and secondary special needs schools in the country presently. Of that number, Kano has 153, followed by Kaduna with 79 and Lagos with 75. States with the least number of such schools are Borno, Bayelsa and Zamfara. Regrettably, most of this schools lack the basic infrastructure adapted for children in such situations.

It is gratifying to note that some conventional schools have tried to bridge the gap by adopting inclusive learning to take care of children with special needs. We are all for this approach as in our considered opinion, inclusive education is the most effective way to give all children equal opportunity for learning and development.

The big question, however, is: with most private schools adopting the online teaching model, how will children with special needs fit into this new arrangement? Won’t they be deliberately left behind?  It needs to be emphasized that children with special needs often rely on specialized coaching and instruction like cues or sensory activities that keep them on task which is almost impossible in online learning as many students with special needs thrive within the structure of the school.

It is a known fact that some parents of children in public schools cannot afford to get laptops, tablets or smart phones for their children to participate in this online learning. Worse still, most parents of children with special needs cannot afford assistive technology as it is beyond the reach of an average earner in the country. This, no doubt, is a major snag in the online learning system.

Consequently, with online learning becoming the new normal in the Covid-19 era, we call on the federal government to develop a national policy on inclusive education. We must restructure our education sector in a post Covid -19 world. Students and pupils with disabilities and special needs have the right to learn and develop like other children. We also urge the government to invest in the training of teachers and e- learning platform- enhanced inclusive learning. Our priorities must necessarily be altered in line with the current and emerging challenges.

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