Vector image of various persons with disabilties

Covid-19 New Normal? What does it mean for Inclusive Education and what government  must do to support students with disabilities

The COVID-19 health crisis has forced millions of schools and universities around the world to be closed temporarily to slow the spread of the deadly virus. The Indonesian government followed suit  by moving  teaching and learning from face to face to online. To ensure the continuity of student’s learning, the Indonesian government is planning guidance in various contexts to find alternative means for students to continue learning during this period. Recently, the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture (Kemendikbud) has published the Circular Letter No.15 of 2020 regarding Guidelines for Organizing Learning From Home in the Emergency Period of the Distribution of Covid-19.

Despite criticism,  the Indonesian government plans to open the country and to slowly return to economic activity.  It has become a new buzzword, popularised by the government, that Indonesia would soon enter what it says is a “New Normal”. It is basically asking people to deal with the virus and get back to a ‘normal’  life, so that the economy will get back on track.

Given all the public debate surrounding this move, there has not been adequate attention given to how people with disabilities would ‘return’ and ‘engage’ in this new ‘normalised life’. In particular, what does new normal mean for students with disabilities? Does that mean they will return to school or to universities? What measures are schools and universities taking to protect students with disabilities from contracting the virus?

When the virus first hit and the move to online learning began, as a person with lived experience, I thought this pandemic would be a catalyst for change in the field of education. Online learning means forcing educational institutions, including teachers or lecturers to adopt technology, adjust themselves to assistive technology, and, most importantly, all this happens along with the Education 4.0. But, most importantly, educational institutions are forced to implement the recent Government Regulation No 13/2020 on Reasonable Adjustments for Students with a Disability which requires all educational institutions to make reasonable adjustments in providing quality education to students with disabilities.

The move to online education brought about by the pandemic must have turned all parties’ attention to the need to review the way we treat students with different needs in our classroom. Our perspective on education must be reviewed. We need to reconsider the application of conventional education systems and methods.. This pandemic must be a moment where we start thinking of making changes to the future of education, including what the teaching and learning experience is for students with disabilities.

My understanding is that the “New Normal” means all activities will largely return to the way things were before the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, with the condition that health protocols must be followed.

Under the “new normal”, government must pay attention to the needs and conditions of students with disabilities. I imagine there will be two teaching and learning methods under the new normal. One will be implementing the face-to-face method, and the other will be online. However, the government should put an effort to ensure that students, teachers, and families have all the support they need to continue learning. Educators and educational institutions, too, must continue to provide support to individuals with disabilities.

Training should focus on how to manage online learning and support students through the distance learning experience, using technology to optimize the teaching and learning process as well as ensure engagement and participation of the students. For those who are going to apply the New Normal, teachers should be socialized with safe procedures such as how to ensure health protocols are followed by students during the teaching and learning process in the classroom, and how to support the learning of disabled students based on their needs. For example, younger students at the primary level might need individual attention that requires close distance and face-to-face learning methods. Thus, the teacher should prepare health aids before study time begins, such as wearing a mask, always washing hands, reducing physical contact, and rearranging the seats to at least 1 meter between each student in the classroom.

In higher education, the application of New Normal might consider the characteristics of student’s needs. For students with mobility difficulties, for example, disability services providers (if any) or universities should provide face masks, hand sanitizer, or handwashing facilities, which are easy to access by the disabled students as well as their peer supports. Lecturers at universities also need to be equipped with the same information as teachers in schools. If possible, remote learning instead of just using the face-to-face approach should be considered by educators as alternatives to support physical distancing policy during the New Normal implementation. Moreover, there should be signs (e.g. banners or notice boards which are accessible for those who have a disability to remind students to keep following the New Normal procedures.

Students with disabilities may find themselves in survival mode, gathering information and resources necessary to function at school, work, as an individual, and in their relationships with others. Some people with disabilities may be attempting to settle into their new routines. While others, this situation means that they have to try to mitigate the effect of social isolation. For the majority of this group of people, New Normal means learning how to live (or re-live) with friends, family members, teachers, or peer supports, which is not always as easy as we might think. A lot of disabled children and young adults struggle to find a distraction-free space at home that is conducive to a productive and effective learning process. Others find that they have problems with the internet connection, such as signal strength in remote areas, or do not have access to the internet at all due to a lack of financial support, where they cannot purchase enough mobile data to do online learning.

Additionally, for Deaf and Blind students, have been feeling very challenged with inaccessible materials or the unavailability of sign language interpreter support. They feel like it takes twice as much time, effort, and energy to do even simple tasks such as finding resources, which can be quite draining. They have really had to be very compassionate and patient as a result of the current situation. Others may be struggling with fatigue, frustration, sadness, anger, grief, and adjustment anxiety (among other things). Although some disabled students face difficulties during the learning from home policy, others report benefits from this learning mode.

In the New Normal, students who are going back to school or university will have to adjust once again to the new arrangements. The government should ensure information about this new normal protocol is provided in accessible formats. Socialization regarding any information of how students should live with the health protocols should be massive and take into consideration accessibility standards. For those who are still conducting distance learning, the government should consider the financial support for this population. In addition, the availability of home educational support services should also be guaranteed to ensure continuity of learning for those with moderate and severe disabilities students.

The government is expected to be able to provide services and accommodate the needs of the whole community. However, the rights of persons with disabilities in the area of special education during the COVID-19 pandemic tend to be marginalized. Therefore, disability activists, disability advocates, academics, and practitioners in the field of inclusive education should continue to remind and support the government in providing feedback on how to make the New Normal Guidelines in the field of education appropriate to the disabled student’s needs.

Regardless of the pandemic impact on social-economic or mental health, the government’s decision has never been so difficult and tends to be complex because the pandemic continues to evolve, and not in a linear manner. In particular, in Indonesia, the trend shows a significantly increasing number of infected groups in the last two months. In fact, there is insufficient evidence on the risks of transmission and how fast it is spreading. Later on, the locked-down policy will be lifted gradually, with many question marks on how the process will be managed, to a great extent because there are many characteristics of the virus as well as the new form of the mutated virus, and we just don’t know how bad its effect on humans is. Yet, even with the current uncertainties, I believe that the Indonesian government can anticipate and prepare to reopen schools and universities successfully, putting the necessary safeguards in place.

Useful links:

https://www.nais.org/articles/pages/additional-covid-19-guidance-for-schools/

https://www.gettingsmart.com/2020/04/how-to-reopen-schools-a-10-point-plan-putting-equity-at-the-center/

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