Building Back Better: towards a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world
An inclusive response to the COVID-19 pandemic is needed to ensure that children with disabilities are not further left behind in education.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruptions to children’s education. With the majority of schools in Indonesia still closed, millions of students have been forced to continue their learning remotely.
Yet the impacts have not been felt equally. School closures have disproportionately affected children with disabilities, who were already at a disadvantage. In 2019, nearly 140,000 children aged 7-18 years with disabilities were out of school according to data from a household survey (SUSENAS 2018). Children with disabilities are less likely to benefit from distance learning solutions. Many lack support, internet access, and accessible software and learning materials.
But while the current crisis poses significant challenges for children with disabilities and their families, it also presents a unique opportunity to address the long-standing systemic inequalities in education laid bare by the pandemic.
An empty classroom in Madrasa Ibtidaiyah Keji (MI Keji) in Ungaran, Central Java. Teachers at MI Keji received training on inclusive education, and the school now welcomes 25 children with disabilities. But like most schools across the country, MI Keji closed in early March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Even before the pandemic, close to 3 in 10 children with disabilities in Indonesia had never been to school. And when enrolled, there were significant gaps in educational attainment. Only 56 per cent of children with disabilities finished primary school, compared to 95 per cent of children without disabilities.
Millah, 12, a girl with an intellectual disability, receives a video call from her teacher Mintarsih while studying at home in Ungaran.
With classroom-based learning suspended, students have to rely on smartphones, computers and the Internet to connect with their teachers. But many families – especially those from lower economic backgrounds – are unable to afford internet data or devices and live in areas with limited internet connectivity, excluding them from distance learning and life-saving information on COVID-19. Closing the gap in connectivity would provide enormous support for building a more inclusive world.
Teachers Ika, Nila and Mintarsih demonstrate an activity they use to engage children with physical and intellectual disabilities in class. Children with disabilities often rely on routine therapy as well as assistive devices and learning materials at school. During and after the pandemic, they require continuous support to access adaptive technology and learning adaptation that meet their specific needs.
Syaiful, 12, a child with a physical impairment, studies with his teacher Fatikhatus at his grandfather's home in Banyumas, Central Java. Social support services have also been affected by the pandemic, and teachers may not modify their teaching methods, which makes it more difficult for children with disabilities to keep up with their peers.
Preparation and orientation of teachers for inclusion should happen through teacher training. Besides the child-centred pedagogy, training could also help teachers address attitudes towards children with disabilities and prepare them to support families by encouraging caregivers to keep their children in school and informing them about their children’s potential.
Syaiful is helped into a wheelchair by his father. Syaiful cannot freely move his lower body or his right hand. A lack of accessible infrastructure and learning materials is a significant obstacle to learning for children with physical, intellectual and learning disabilities. Universal design in learning infrastructure – which includes the accessibility of buildings, reading materials and sanitation facilities – would suit the needs of children with different types of disabilities.
Evan, 10, says he has experienced difficulties while learning remotely and misses his friends and teachers. Both of his parents work and are unable to support his learning at home. Investing in mental health, physical and socio-cultural infrastructures would provide essential support for children with disabilities and their caregivers during and after the pandemic.
In August 2020, SLB AL Fithri in Bandung, West Java, received permission from local authorities to reopen after requests from caregivers who faced challenges with remote learning. The classes are limited to one teacher and five students who must follow public health protocols, which include wearing a mask, having their temperatures checked, keeping their physical distance and washing their hands.
In a recent survey, a majority of parents (81 per cent) said they are ready to send their children back to school. While most (90 per cent) believe that their children know how to follow the health protocols, many also said that schools need to have a clear policy for applying health protocols based on the needs and capacity of the children.
Nabila (left), 12, translates a discussion into sign language during a session on health knowledge in response to the COVID-19 outbreak during the National Children's Day celebration at the Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency in Jakarta. Greater and meaningful engagement with children with disabilities must be included in development programmes. No programme, policy, product or guideline regarding disabilities should be made without meaningful engagement of children with disabilities.