Blind, visually impaired parents hit hard by problems dogging online classesSunday, September 12, 2021
BY ROMARDO LYONS
A number of blind and visually impaired parents say the move by schools to online classes, forced by the novel coronavirus pandemic, has been particularly difficult for them, even as they acknowledge improvements in technology that have allowed them to help their children.
Now, with the return of face-to-face classes delayed because of increased cases of COVID-19, those parents are lamenting an extension of the Internet connection problems they faced in the last academic year.
Shavane Daley, a blind father, told the Jamaica Observer that he has been having difficulty supporting his five-year-old daughter, Achaeya, with distance learning because of Internet connectivity issues.
“I relocated from Kingston to Clarendon last year, so as it relates to Internet accessibility, it's not as good as it is in Kingston. While enrolling my daughter here in a school in Clarendon, the network availability issue is the main issue. It was both a challenge at my end as a parent and at the school's end as well. Sometimes, either the Internet is down, the data not working good, or you have to try go to different locations to get better signal. It's a lot of different factors,” said Daley, who lives in Bloomwell district.
He added, however, that he's able to manoeuvre the different technological platforms used for classes.
“Generally, I'm kinda tech-savvy, so once the Internet is up for me, I'm good. For blind and visually impaired persons, technology has come a far way,” he said, noting that because of poor connectivity it's difficult to connect with his daughter's teachers.
“Most of the times when the teachers are trying to connect, they are not able to. So what we have to do is resort to doing classes via WhatsApp. For me, it wasn't good enough. It was really difficult, and it's very sad to know that this year we're going to go through the same thing again,” Daley said.
He told the Sunday Observer that he now has to be more involved in his daughter's academics despite his disability.
“I am just going with faith and hoping for the best for this year, as my daughter is now going into grade one. I think she lost out on a lot as it relates to school. She was always very excited when they were able to get on live classes. She was really into the classes and I can see that learning and talking directly to the teacher worked. But once it goes directly to WhatsApp, unless I am teaching her or monitoring her, she is not that focused. The interaction is well-needed. With that, it was really difficult at times,” he explained.
Daley's experience was corroborated by Conrad Harris, executive director of Jamaica Society for the Blind.
Harris told the Sunday Observer that monitoring their children is one of the major issues affecting blind and visually impaired parents at this time.
“Quite often, there is a challenge for some parents in monitoring their children and being able to know what they are doing and assist them,” he said.
Robert Ball, who lost his sight in 2017, has four children — two girls, 16 and 14 years old; and two boys, 12 and eight years old.
He said it's been a hectic year for his youngest child, Joshua, especially.
“It's difficult, but the truth about it is that he stays with his mother mostly because me cyaan really look out for him. He has to be getting private tutoring virtually [but] it's really difficult to support him, especially because I don't have a job,” Ball said.
“I try to keep up. Mi do mi best. Mi nuh bother mek it pressure mi mind, because life goes on and I have to live for my children. Life is here and I have to give thanks for that,” said Ball.
Kamika Braithwaite, a visually impaired mother of a 17-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, said she uses a screen reader to read messages and instructions that are sent to her device by teachers. Despite relying on the software, Brathwaite told the Sunday Observer that she still encounters problems.
“When the school communicates with you, they usually send you either WhatsApp messages or text messages, and technology is so great now, it's easy for us visually impaired. Once we have a smartphone with a screen reader, we can read messages. But I got a couple messages from my daughter's teacher this year. She sent a picture of something to say, 'This is some information about your child… please look at this to see if it's correct.' For pictures, our screen readers do not have the ability to decipher text from them,” Braithwaite said.
“For a situation like that, I would have to refer to someone else, so it can be annoying. There are other apps we can employ, but they are a little bit more ticklish. But I know it's not that the teacher can do any different. She has the information and she decided to take a picture to show us. I think we're taking our time and getting used to the whole thing,” she added.
Brathwaite's son recently graduated from Excelsior High School and is now contemplating whether college is the next step. As a result, she said most of the struggles emerge from catering to her more impressionable daughter.
“She attends Dunrobin Primary School. It's an interesting time. The pandemic is interesting and distressing, both for parents and children alike. In terms of going through and getting information to help them to go through stuff, it's almost as if every time there's a challenge, you have to just figure out what to do, ” Braithwaite said.
The Zoom platform, she added, is “perfectly accessible” for people who are visually impaired.
“The screen readers work with it well. If the teachers send a link on WhatsApp, or the meeting ID and passcode, it's also fine because we can read that and put it in. Google Classroom is also fairly good, and I like it because I can log into it on my phone as well,” she said.
“So even though my daughter's tablet may not have a screen reader, I can log into her classroom on my phone, and I can still know whether or not she did the work because I can see what she did, what she did not do, and what is due.”
Blind mother Sharmalee Cardoza said she, too, has been faced with a challenge. The Portmore, St Catherine resident told the Sunday Observer that she was fortunate enough to not have any technological or connectivity issues, but much-needed supervision for her nine-year-old daughter demanded a new approach.
“Fortunately, my supervisor was accommodating. I never had anyone at all to leave her [daughter] with that would supervise her. So taking her to work with me worked out well because I could monitor, for the most part, what she was doing.
“And fortunately, that's my story. Once I got her to log into the classroom and provided her with the Zoom information, I didn't really have a challenge. My biggest challenge was that my child likes face-to-face more than the online thing. So sometimes she's distracted, and I have to pay attention,” she said.
Cardoza called on the Ministry of Education to consider a more inclusive approach for visually impaired parents and students.
“They definitely need to do that. I know that group of children have lost a lot from the inception of COVID and they might be one and a half years behind. That is how serious it is for that segment of students with disabilities. Especially those who attend the special schools where they definitely need one-on-one, face-to-face attention,” Cardoza said, insisting that an intervention is needed.
“We're still in the pandemic, the cases are rising and we might have another year of them losing out, making it two and a half years. So the ministry really and truly needs to have some intervention programme for these children with special needs to get them back on track.”