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Designing a disability-inclusive safeguarding plan for online learning

by Kritika M Narula

Is your safeguarding response to the pandemic, the lockdown, and online teaching disability-inclusive? 

Child safeguarding means a set of policies, procedures and practices to ensure that the learning experience is safe for children and that the school proactively prevents doing harm. Keeping children safe in education is an ongoing exercise and the work doesn’t stop even in remote learning set-ups. On the contrary, the work of securing children’s welfare gets more challenging when our primary communication with them happens through screens. 

According to The Department for Education, safeguarding children and promoting their welfare includes protecting children from maltreatment, preventing impairment of children’s health or development, ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care, and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes. A major part of safeguarding is said to be supporting vulnerable children and children with disabilities. 

In order to support them, first, it's important to understand who would identify with these categories. A child with disabilities is defined as someone who has ‘long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.’ It has been widely discussed that remote learning can present unique challenges for children with disabilities. 

One, remote learning can feel alien — or alienating — for children with disabilities if accommodations are not made to help them feel included. (This may not be wilful — it’s understandable that schools often operate on limited resources themselves). Secondly, for many children with disabilities, schools aren’t just places of education. They’re also places where they receive additional support or therapy as a part of their learning program. Thirdly, going back to what we reported last year, children on the autism spectrum fundamentally thrive and survive on structure and routine, both of which have been severely disturbed. Neurodivergent children draw immense benefit from being around peers their age and get a chance to develop their proclivities. Online learning can barely be a one-size-fits-all even for neurotypical children; neurodivergent children can get robbed of developmental progress.

Therefore, it is important to think of our collective safeguarding response with a disability-inclusive perspective. 

What does an inclusive online classroom look like?

“Include” your students

How can we begin the designing of a disability-inclusive safeguarding remote-learning response? Start from the source. Nothing will bring more accurate insights into your design than the lived experience of the very children you’re trying to include. Mahima Bhalla, a High School Learning Support Teacher who runs ValuEd, shares, “If you know the needs of your learners, you can accordingly design for them.” In every class, students with different needs should be identified and provided for. Even within people on the spectrum, each student will behave or react differently to different modes of learning. It is imperative to have an understanding of their individual needs. 

Leverage technology in the design

In order to be inclusive of people with disabilities, the remote learning experience needs to be designed with different abilities in mind. “This,” shares Nina Baliga, VP, Client Engagement and Equitable Strategies at interviewIA, “includes thinking beyond WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standards and thinking through how people are using technology today. Some examples of things you should think through include software accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired, the Deaf community or Hard of Hearing, people with mobility impairments, and people who are neurodiverse.”

We’ve to incorporate more sophisticated technologies within the remote classroom, those that make it a safe space for children with disabilities. For example, apps like Tap Tap See, Seeing AI, Vision make use of artificial intelligence, device's camera and VoiceOver function to convert real-time footage or photos from a cell phone camera into words that are played through the phone’s speaker. This enables visually impaired people to “hear” their surroundings. There are a plethora of such assistive technologies to choose from, and the designs are increasingly becoming more inclusive with time. 

This is a good place to mention that that inclusion should be inherent in the very design of the curriculum & teaching modules. 

Think of accessibility as a standard, not an exception

Safeguarding children with disabilities should be understood as a fundamental aspect of setting classes, not as an optional add-on to be introduced “if there are children with disabilities in the classroom.” Operating on the assumption that all children are neurotypical is harmful because a lot of disabilities are invisible, get aggravated in uncomfortable environments, and many don’t get diagnosed until quite later in life

Bhalla offers a nuanced perspective she’s developed in her teaching, “If you know what hinders a students' learning, or physical or emotional/psychological safety, you will work to minimise those factors in the class. Examples could include, too many visual inputs on the screen (quite common during online learning), or the requirement of keeping videos on (could cause anxiety or distraction to some), or discussing topics that may be triggering for some (for instance death, or depression or sexual assault etc.). However, as a general practice, it is helpful to follow a few things routinely so that it benefits everyone, those whose needs may not be visible or known to you. For example, something as basic as giving breaks during the class. Especially in high school or college, where classes are longer, content-heavy and may not involve as much movement. Breaks are essential for neurodiverse learners and benefit all. Or, practising wait time, that is, after you have asked a question, you give everyone some time to think then respond.”

For many educational institutions, resource- or capacity-constraints are often cited as reasons they aren’t able to attend to the special needs of children with disabilities. These changes can be implemented without incurring massive expenses, and there are more strategies that can help deliver disability-inclusive child safeguarding for resource-pressed schools. 

Outside of lessons too, all designated safeguarding staff should make their work disability-inclusive. And if there are staff in charge of disability inclusion, they should work with the safeguarding staff to help improve child safeguarding practices. Such inter-departmental cohesion can help cover any erroneous omission. Ask your vendors & contractors to provide accessibility-first features in their products/services. There should be a culture where all tools, systems, and softwares used across the school have accessibility features by default. SCR Tracker, for example, is accessible across all devices and browsers, so the usage isn’t device-restricted. It also works with accessibility features such as VoiceOver, or screen readers.

Make content availability & lesson structures equitable

It’s a good start to contemplate what equity looks like in a classroom. First of all, any gatekeeping of the contents of the lesson, either on the basis of time, mode of access, or performance is inequitable. All reading material should be made available in a readable format, easily picked up by the most basic accessibility softwares. Content should also not be restricted to a particular kind of browser or device. Other forms of gatekeeping that can seem innocuous — like performance-based access to materials, or compulsory attendance for live lessons — should also be avoided. For example, teachers should make the lessons available both live as well as recorded, for children who may not follow — or feel overwhelmed by — the live versions. Secondly, it has been recommended that during remote learning, videos can be tools for equity and access for students with learning and thinking differences. Children often find it easier to understand instructions on the video. The video medium also helps provide accommodations in the form of subtitles & transcripts to support the main media, and can also help build personalised messages, which get lost in a more formal, written handout-style lesson.

Bhalla also suggests facilitating routines and protocols in class such that all students are included. Often, working together in groups can ease anxiety for many children and in order to make it even more effective, teachers can consider strategic grouping (that is, intentionally grouping certain students together) to create a supportive environment for those with disabilities.

Work collaboratively & make soft changes in lesson plans

As mentioned before, this exercise is an ongoing one. Therefore, changes need to be incorporated to accommodate the needs as & when they come to notice. Bhalla recommends keeping a loop of students’ feedback, “Ask them what helps them, what does not, what bothers them, what one could do to make the class more accessible and inclusive for them. How might the assignment requirements be different? For younger students, talk to their parents (since many are supporting their kids during remote learning).”

If you’re recording lessons for asynchronous viewing & wearing a mask when doing so, make sure it’s a transparent mask to help with lip-reading. Before uploading the lesson, double-check the transcripts for accuracy. Provide supporting material: a glossary for complex vocabulary, repeat complex concepts, and share instructions both verbally and in chat. When sharing a screen, keep minimal tabs on display (this is for children with attention sensitivity).

Beyond the classroom: Identify other risk factors

Schools do a lot more than teach. That shouldn’t change in a remote set-up. Engage with learners beyond formal teaching. According to the World Health Organization, stigma, discrimination, and lack of knowledge about disability, as well as a lack of social support for those who care for or support children with disabilities cna be risk factors. Children with disabilities are also more vulnerable to abuse and violence. On top of it, communication impairments also hamper the ability to disclose any abusive or traumatic exepriences. Regular, free-flowing one-on-one meetings with teachers can provide students additional support. 

Bhalla shares the importance of recreational elements, “Outside of the classroom, having a homeroom period or a social-emotional class, or some fun activities can be other ways to ensure that students with disabilities or those normally left out of the social circle too remain socially connected with their peers and adults at school.”

In order for the safeguarding plan to have optimum impact, the three key elements: a clear safeguarding ethos, a policy that sets out clear expectations and processes, and high-quality training, are required to function cohesively. This means that the incorporation of above points in the policy, their implementation in the lessons, and training of all stakeholders are all equally important. So, the staff responsible for informing, preventing, reporting and responding to safeguarding concerns should be made aware of disability-inclusive protocols and good practices. Similarly, very often, children with disabilities themselves should be made aware of their right to be safe from harm and redressal mechanism should be available in an accessible format.

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posted 4 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.