By Pralhad Gairapipli and Simone Galimberti
Pralhad Gairapipli works with Humanity & Inclusion as Regional Communications Officer, covering India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Opinions expressed are personal.
KATHMANDU (IDN) — Can a mobile app become the transformative tool that will allow thousands of vulnerable children to enjoy their right to education?
This is the bet that is being made by a consortium of agencies working in Nepal to enhance the rights of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
If most of the children suffered a lot during the Covid-19 lockdown due to the fact that they could not attend their classroom and an alternative system put in place was not adequate to meet their needs, those who are deaf or hard of hearing, are among those who paid the highest consequences.
Sadhana, 10, acquired hearing impairment when she went through an unknown disease during her childhood. Sadhana likes drawing and sewing. Her family has been consistently worried about her education and future.
Before the pandemic, Sadhana was lucky enough to be able to attend a Resource Class, an additional class at a mainstream school to support the special needs of the children with disabilities, such as those who are deaf, blind or have intellectual disabilities.
However, at the school, both children with and without disabilities learn together with their peers. Even though there she was facing difficulties, a protected learning environment was available to her.
The pandemic changed all this.
The Resource Class was hers only hope but the closure of academics shattered their hope while creating learning loss.
Sadhana is one of the many facing daunting challenges in enjoying their right to education.
Now a mobile app, Mero Sanket, developed by the USAID supported Reading for All program, could help change the status quo.
As implementing partners, a coalition of organizations including Humanity & Inclusion, World Education, National Federation of the Deaf Nepal (NDFN), Center for Education and Human Resource Development (CEHRD), are working full steam to ensure the app will reach as many as possible children in need of it.
While a full assessment of Mero Sanket’s effectiveness will require time as it was launched just on the occasion of the International Day of Sign Languages, commemorated each year on the 23rd September, technological advancement, complemented by interventions in the sphere of policymaking, could make a true difference.
The quest for a more inclusive education system in Nepal is not a minor issue considering the thousands of children with disabilities who, on daily basis, encounter barriers to their rights posed by stereotypes and exclusion.
To give an idea of the numbers involved, only students who are deaf or hard of hearing in the country are over 15,000. As in Sadhana’s case, there is a system in place tailored made to the special needs of deaf and hard of hearing kids.
In addition to the “Resource Classrooms”, the backbone of an educational system that strives to be inclusive, there are 22 specialized schools targeting children with hearing impairments.
The approach to inclusive education undertaken by Nepal, though requires considerable improvements, testifies the progress being made by the country in making its learning system more equal.
Mero Sanket could be the starting point to reinforce this system but now, its contents are only focused on children from Grade 1 to Grade 3. In a short span of time, the app introduced thanks to an extensive network of community workers, is already making a huge difference.
Abhishek, 12, acquired hearing loss when he was 6 years old. He only had the chance to get enrolled in Resource Class in the western district of Dang in 2021 but he also had to discontinue his learning due to the Covid lockdowns.
Mero Sanket helped fill the gap.
“My son used to dress up himself and wait for the learning facilitator,” told Abhishek’s father, referring to the local instructors introducing the app to the children, helping them continue with their learning during the schools ‘closure.
“We are now so happy to see the engagement and progress of our son in learning” he added. Initially, Abishek didn’t seem interested and unconvincing. Later with the facilitation and motivations from the community workers, he agreed to learn. Later he found it so interesting to learn through pictures and sign languages available at the app”.
Sapana Pokhrel is one of the learning facilitators from Surkhet, in western Nepal.
Since the launch of the app, instructors like her have been instrumental in providing educational support to deaf and hard of hearing children.
“This app is very useful for those who even don’t know Nepali sign language. They can learn and teach to the deaf children”
She continues: “The self-evaluation session in this app is very useful. This is also practical as it enables discussions on daily use activities such as greetings, food, hygiene and sanitation activities.”
With Mero Sanket slowly getting more and more traction, two challenges need to be tackled on.
First how the use of new technologies can be mainstreamed across the curriculum, complimenting, strengthening, rather than abruptly disrupting, the existing model of inclusive education.
“Children might feel bored on learning all the time with the teachers and their lectures but mobile app has made their learning more independent, fun and interesting” shares Sapana.
Perhaps the lessons that are still be drawn from the challenges of imparting education during a pandemic and the impact of such shift had on millions of children, is going to help revisit traditional approaches to education.
It is very possible that hybrid forms of onsite education combined with online, technology-enhanced sessions will have experimented further. For sure technology alone is not enough.
“Children”, shares Sapana, “should be properly guided to use mobile technology through a routine use and monitoring from the teachers so that their addiction to the phone or any negative consequences on health can be prevented.”
Finding the right balance between tailored made educational innovation and enhanced and improved traditional methodologies is not going to be easy but their opportunities are to be explored.
The second challenge is how to ensure higher education for deaf and hard of hearing children are more widely available.
“This app puts Nepali Sign Language into the hands of anyone with an interest in learning it. We wish to take more initiatives to promote inclusive education by developing an additional learning material together and to lay the groundwork for more expanded education of deaf children”, a statement of the National Federation of the Deaf Nepal explains.
We need to scale up apps like Mero Sanke as much as possible and also ensure that these new tools can promote learning materials for the entire 12 years of mandatory education as per law’s requirements in Nepal and go even further.
There are only a few options of secondary education with only three out of the 22 specialized schools for the deaf in Nepal providing the entire 12 mandatory years of education.
Compounding the problem, in the entire country there is only one undergraduate-level learning institution for deaf students and there is no master-level course for them.
Mero Sanket offers a first important step.
We hope this app and other similar that might come, can become also a catalyst for more opportunities in higher education for deaf and hard of hearing students.
For now, at least, the younger ones will surely have a better chance to exercise their right to education and develop their learning and with it, their sense of agency. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 December 2021]
Photo: Young Abishek, who has a hearing impairment, studies with a Reading for All project’s learning facilitator at his home using a Nepali sign language learning app called “Mero Sanket”. The app was developed with support from the USAID through Reading For All program and this is available for free download on Android devices at the Google Play Store. This is the result of collaboration through the program, which is implemented by Humanity & Inclusion in partnership with World Education, the National Federation of the Deaf Nepal, and the Government of Nepal. Photo ©: Humanity & Inclusion
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