Background: The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant challenges to education globally, as schools were closed, and alternative means had to be sought to enable students to continue with their studies. In the resource-constrained setting of Bangladesh, the pandemic impacted on the education of 37 million children (UNICEF 2021), of whom children with disabilities have been amongst the most severely affected. Already disadvantaged compared to children without disabilities in terms of access to education, the pandemic and the challenges of accessing remote learning have deepened inequalities between children with disabilities and their able-bodied peers. This study was undertaken as part of DID Task Order 13 Bangladesh, the goal of which is for girls and boys with disabilities to have equal access to quality education and support. Interventions are based in the two districts of Narsingdi and Siranjganj and the subdistricts of Narsingdi Sadar, Tarash and Sirajganj Sadar. The aim of this research was to explore the experiences of children with disabilities, their parents and teachers in respect of access to learning opportunities during school closures and beyond. Its findings inform the interventions of the project, specifically the support required for individual learners with disabilities and their families as well as for the schools where they are enrolled. Method: This qualitative study was carried out in the three sub-districts of Bangladesh mentioned above and based in schools denoted for project intervention. Children with disabilities were purposively selected from school records to represent a range of ages, grades, type of disability and different sexes. Screening was conducted using the UNICEF Child Functioning Module (CFM). Data was collected between October 2021 and February 2022 and included in-depth interviews with 22 children with disabilities, 23 caregivers and six teachers, as well as through household and school observations. Findings: Based on the CFM, 91% of the children interviewed have difficulties in more
than one functional domain, with the most common being difficulties in controlling behaviour, learning and communication. The study found the CFM to be more sensitive to identification of functional difficulties than the teachers’ assessments. Through the interviews, a range of challenges were raised regarding continuation of learning during the pandemic. Almost all the children mentioned that they missed their schools, and particularly their friends. Caregivers expressed concern about their children being out of touch with their studies, acknowledging that schools provide an environment that helps students learn. When movements were restricted, and children could not go to
coaching classes or be with their friends, some children displayed regressive behaviour such as increased agitation because of the social isolation. One of the most common supports that facilitated learning during school closures was the appointment of private tutors. In addition, family members helped their children study at home. Where teachers were able to visit children and provide structure and support for home learning (in the form of assignments), this significantly contributed to children’s motivation to continue with their education. While the caregivers tried to support their children as far as possible, several factors impacted negatively on learning viz. lack of motivation of children to continue with their studies, inadequate support from teachers and financial constraints undermining the ability of families to cover the costs of education. Especially challenging was the lack of access to technological support and limited time and skills of parents to support their children with disabilities, in addition to their household responsibilities and other children to look after. Although caregivers talked about the lack of support from teachers, the teachers, on the other hand, mentioned that they were not fully equipped with knowledge and skills to appropriately support learners with disabilities. In some instances, children with disabilities were kept behind a grade for not passing their class assessments or were allowed to progress to the next grade without achieving the required competencies. Observations of homes revealed that almost all of the children with disabilities interviewed were living in low-income households, with overcrowding, outside washrooms, minimal furniture and no conducive study areas. Some houses had mud flooring and tin rooves, posing multiple safety and physical barriers for children with disabilities. School visits enabled identification of inaccessible infrastructure, including access roads, entrances and washrooms. Although all of the schools visited had ramps, none of these were fully usable and none had rails. As schools reopen, interviewees identified various strategies that would contribute to encouraging learners with disabilities to return to school and participate effectively in learning. These include specific focus on learners with disabilities by teachers in order to
provide targeted support; ending discrimination against those who do not perform well academically; and differentiation of the curriculum and assessments for learners with intellectual disabilities. These interventions, together with ensuring accessible school infrastructure, will contribute to creating a more enabling environment for learners with disabilities.
Recommendations: The COVID-19 pandemic has further deepened vulnerability of low income families and exclusion of children with disabilities from education. In order to address the potential widening gap that could be created by a surge of dropouts following school closures, various interventions need to be prioritized. These include building on the strategies of resilience already developed by families to support learning of their children; and enhancing parents’ confidence in providing support themselves. In addition,linkages between home and school need to be strengthened and appropriate learning resources made available to children at home, taking cognizance of the inaccessibility of
technology and remote programmes for children with disabilities (both in terms of devices and connectivity). It is essential that teachers’ role in supporting learning at home for children with disabilities be strengthened; and that teachers are equipped with skills to cater for disability and diversity among learners. This needs to be accompanied by removal of barriers in the built environments of schools and their surrounds.