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The advent of the pandemic has heightened the important of digital technology. Almost everything can now be conducted online including schooling and education. To unify regulation related to digital education, PM eVIDYA was launched on 17th May 2020. Within the initiative, specific focus has been made on the development of e-content for children with disabilities (CwDs). The current modus operandi of e-education has led to exclusionary outcomes. While several programs have been launched to promote digital education such as DIKSHA (a virtual education platform where NCERT textbooks are available), SWAYAM etc., only those equipped with technical expertise and are involved in the logistics of the above-mentioned initiatives are aware of the objective of accessibility standards. Academicians who publish content, teachers who teach content and students who are learning, are oblivious of the required technical standards and guidelines of inclusivity and accessibility. Realising this chasm, the Department of School Education and Literacy of Ministry of Education (MoE) founded a committee with the objective of "teaching-learning e-content for CwDs". Subsequently, on June 1st 2021, the committee released the guidelines formulated in a 124 page report.

Format of the Guidelines

Three special sub-committees were created to deliberate the matter at hand - i) sub-committee for the development of guidelines for developing-content for Children with Special Needs ii) sub-committee for the collation of existing resources and uploading on DIKSHA and iii) sub-committee for creating an inventory of colleges and organizations that are already working in the field of e-content development. Importantly, the recommendations made are vis-a-vis the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (“RoPD”).

The Report is divided into Eleven Sections and Two Appendixes. Section 1 establishes the foundation of the eVIDYA vision by referring to the emphasis on digital education and inclusion of children with disabilities in the previously released National Education Policy. Section 2 considers the available census data on disabilities and the legal rights available to Persons with Disabilities, specially alluding to international covenants such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and municipal legislations such as the RoPD, 2016. Section 3 outlines the standards required to be adhered to such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) to enable accessibility of e-content. Section 4 is an extension the previous section and prescribed mandatory standards to secure inclusivity. Section 5 mandates the adaption of printed textbooks into digital textbooks. Section 6-9 deal with guidelines for specific kinds of disabilities, such as autism, mental illness etc. Section 10-11 include a summary of recommendations and possible suggestions in respect of the same.

Principles and Standards on which the Guidelines are Based

Electronic content has been categorized into three components in the ‘Guidelines’.

All forms of e-content must comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The latest WCAG was published in June 2018, developed by W3C, an international organization that decides protocols and standards for the web. The WCAG is based on four principles that must be incorporated into e-content for CwDs.

Further, Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW) manual must be uploaded on all portals and websites to spread awareness and ensure compliance with the required standards.

Role of technology in furthering accessibility

  1. Adaption of printed textbooks into Accessible Digital Textbooks The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the Universal Design of Learning (UDL) to cater to varied learning needs. Per the UDL, there are three principles that must be employed - multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression and multiple means of engagement. Keeping these in mind, the NCERT and the Department of Education of Groups with Special Needs developed “Barkha - A reading series for all”. It has used technology to provide 40 sets of digital books and has inclusive features such as the introduction of each story in sign language video format, picture window with real images of key words in Braille, ability to view content in different backgrounds and combinations etc. Further, new textbooks are to be published in digital format ab initio, ensuring that they are inclusive and accessible from “birth”.
  2. Use of technology vis-a-vis guidelines of e-content for students with specific disabilities The ‘Guidelines’ employ technology to enable accessibility for specific disabilities (between Section 6 to Section 9) such as autism, spectrum disorders, low vision, learning disabilities etc. For example, if a student has poor motor coordination suitable customized hardware to ease access must be provided. Further, the ‘Guidelines’ also suggest that software be used which allows for alternative ways of responding to learning activities. To illustrate, if a student has poor verbal skills or is unable to speak, they must be provided with the opportunity to reflect their understanding via visuals.
  3. Uniformity in e-content Content uploaded including texts, diagrams, audios, videos etc. must comply with national (GIGW) and international accessibility standards (WCAG 2.1, E-Pub, DIASY etc.). Additionally, content uploaded on distribution platforms such as DIKSHA and other reading platforms where content is available and engaged with must comply with the technical standards as well.

Conclusion

The ‘Guidelines’ are expansive in their approach to furthering the accessibility needs of CwDs. Not only do they specially recognize the need for a “pedagogical approach” to CwDs, they also extensively cover how such approach can be taken by listing out several options to bring in inclusivity for each kind of disability. Further, the ‘Guidelines’ recognize that every CwD is unique and is based on a lived experience. This seems to be the underpinning of the entire report, thus championing CwDs in the best way possible. With the importance of technology increasing by the day in the education sector, the ‘Guidelines’ have set the ball rolling for high quality content vis-a-vis digital education for CwDs.