OPINION | Online learning a challenge for special-needs children
The Covid-19 pandemic raised the bar for teachers everywhere, but the challenges were even greater for children with special needs and disabilities.
Getting specialist support to these children during the lockdown became a major challenge, especially as the majority were from poorer households with limited access to computers and other crucial technology to remain in touch and on top of their curricula.
Provincial education departments, organisations, schools and teachers must be applauded for quickly creating and adapting teaching and learning materials so that pupils could complete the syllabus in their homes while the country was in lockdown.
Parents and families were expected to play an active role by monitoring their child’s learning, setting up homeschool programmes and becoming more active participants within the teaching process.
However, while many resources are now available in the form of guides, YouTube channels and websites, little support is accessible to parents and families who have the task of homeschooling their children with disabilities.
For instance, as parents and teachers continue to navigate remote learning, children with visual impairment have the added burden of learning in virtual classrooms that aren’t designed for them. Hybrid and socially distant in-person classes present challenges of their own.
Disruptions in daily routines pose a challenge to children with developmental disabilities and their families. Children with sensory, physical or intellectual disabilities often require more intensive supervision and care.
They may be less able to follow self-directed learning because they are not supplied with adaptations such as Braille, or South African Sign Language, which are essential for them to access learning materials.
Some have not yet learnt to read by themselves, while others require higher levels of interaction and learning support.
A recent study by associate professor Judith McKenzie, head of disability studies at the University of Cape Town, highlighted concerns from a teacher at a school for the deaf regarding challenges of remote learning for her pupils: “We are finding it very difficult to contact all our families. Some phone numbers don’t exist.
“For deaf kids, the videos that we send are data-intensive, hence initially there was not a good response.”
The impact of Covid-19 continues to be widely felt and no more so than for children with special educational care needs, who need more practical solutions. Broader commitment from role players in society is required as Covid-19 has only highlighted a pre-existing challenge.
According to Unicef estimates, there are about 93m children with disabilities worldwide. According to the 2009 general household survey in SA, there are an estimated 2.1m children with disabilities. Of these, about 600,000 have never been to class.
Greater networking between teachers and parents to discuss how to adapt learning to the needs of their children is one answer. Now is the time to extend the collaboration between home and school that has been so lacking in special schools.
Everyone deserves to enjoy the benefits of a modern, connected life, and MTN is ramping up its support of the most vulnerable children in society.
For instance, during the lockdown, the MTN SA Foundation saw that there was a serious gap in the support received for children with disabilities. The company believed the power of technology could be harnessed for good to change futures — creating much-needed economic opportunities and growth within the special needs community.
To date, 36 special needs schools have been connected to customised multimedia centres, benefiting more than 5,000 pupils with special needs. These schools are based in all nine provinces of SA.
The foundation’s highly successful flagship Schools Connectivity Programme was initially aimed at supporting 350 disadvantaged schools over a 10-year period. However, in recent years the foundation identified a gap in the special needs learning environment.
In a bid to contribute to inclusivity in education, the MTN SA Foundation has partnered with the departments of education and social development to extend the information and communications technology programme to special schools.
Though much has been achieved so far, there is still a long way ahead. The foundation has renewed its commitment to do even more in 2021 by providing tailored digital tools and software to ensure everyone can access the digital world, and open the door to exciting opportunities and a brighter future.
Kusile Mtunzi-Hairwadzi, MTN SA Foundation
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