In Ghana, education has undergone a series of reforms, but the educational experiences of people with disabilities are often neglected.
When the coronavirus arrived in Ghana, the researchers examined its impact on working-class students and rural students, but not specifically on students with special needs, especially when it comes to online learning. .
Hearing and visual impaired students faced various technical, economic and social challenges when COVID-19 arrived and the traditional school became an online school.
Currently, those students with disabilities from many higher education institutions use Zoom, Telegram and WhatsApp for learning. They are digital platforms that were not created for virtual learning or for people with disabilities.
Many of the hearing impaired students were separated from their sign language interpreters and had no assistive devices, such as hearing aids. This mostly impacted students with limited knowledge of sign language. Blind students were separated from their “sighted” friends who normally assist them.
In a WhatsApp conversation with Global Voices, Esinam Aleawoubu, a hearing impaired student at the Akropong Presbyterian College of Education, recounted her experiences with e-learning:
Sometimes some tutors will use audio instead of caption. But I am deaf, I can't hear on audio. That means an interpreter is supposed to translate it for deaf people. I have to meet the interpreter through the Zoom app. But unfortunately, we can't meet often due to network connection problems and some phone problems.
Sometimes some tutors use audios instead of texts; but I am deaf, I cannot listen to audios. This means that there is an interpreter who is supposed to translate it for deaf people. I have to meet the interpreter through Zoom. Unfortunately, we are unable to meet often due to network connection issues and some phone issues.
When the tutors realized that audiovisual video conferencing applied the expense of internet data to students, they switched to other methods, such as PowerPoint audio conferencing that continued to use audiovisual elements but reduced Internet spending. In Ghana, on average, one gigabyte of Iiternet data costs 10 cedis ($ 1.72).
According to Julius Yaw Klu, a visually impaired student at Akropong Presbyterian College of Education, his four-year-old phone is outdated and does not allow easy access to online conferences:
The problem that I faced with audiovisual is the same problem I have with the PowerPoint. Sometimes it takes about 30 minutes for me to be able to access the lecture. Sometimes I have to wait for the class to end so that I can borrow a computer and use it to access the lecture.
The problem I faced with audiovisual is the same one I have with PowerPoint. Sometimes I need half an hour to access the conference. Sometimes I have to wait for the class to finish so I can borrow a computer and use it to access the conference.
Daniel Kwarko, another visually impaired student from the same school, reported a similar problem with using his mobile to participate in online classes:
Most of the documents we get, the phone can open it, but it cannot read it. And it is difficult for those of us who are visually-impaired. And sometimes you cannot find someone to read it for you. You cannot find someone to always be there to read your notes for you. The phones cannot read the PowerPoint and the slides but the laptop does all those functions. You can even use the laptop to convert documents so that they can be accessible for JAWS (a screen reader program).
The mobile can open most of the documents we receive, but cannot read them, and it is difficult for those who are blind. Sometimes you can't find anyone to read it to you. You can't find someone who is always there to read your notes. Phones cannot read PowerPoint or slides, but the laptop does all those functions. You can even use it to convert documents to make them accessible to JAWS (screen reader program).
These students say that providing up-to-date technology for laptops could greatly facilitate online learning.
Towards inclusion in education
The 2015 Ghana Inclusive Education Policy “ensures a learning environment without barriers and enables all students, including those with disabilities, to move safely and freely, to use the facilities and to participate in learning and in all aspects of life school”.
However, studies show that one in five children between the ages of 6 and 24 with a disability “does not attend school and those who do are often stigmatized and face discrimination.”
Despite efforts to make education more inclusive, students with audiovisual disabilities face a digital divide about online learning. This gap not only marginalizes disabled students but further exacerbates inequalities in Ghana's teacher education system.
Mohammed Salifu, professor and executive secretary of the National Council on Higher Education, said in a telephone interview to Global Voices that stakeholders are taking steps to address the e-learning needs of students with special needs:
We need to make sure that all the interventions we are making are actually tailored to their needs. So the college principals have been proactive in communicating to us. We are partnering with various organizations to address these interventions. These days there are global partners coming in to make submissions regarding how they can help. Even UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) is trying to provide these funds to support special needs students. I wouldn't say that we have comprehensively addressed all the issues, but we are working toward them.
We have to make sure that all the interventions we are doing are really adapted to your needs. So the university directors have been proactive in communicating with us. We are partnering with various organizations to address these interventions. These days there are global partners who come to make presentations on how they can help. Even UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is trying to provide these funds to support students with special needs. I would not say that we have addressed all the issues in a comprehensive way, but we are working to achieve it.
The Transforming Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL) project is also working in Ghana to ensure inclusive online learning for students with hearing and visual disabilities. For example, they allocate funds for Braille curriculum materials, provide smartphones for digital access, and make text-to-speech converters available.
Expand access to education
The 2006 Disabled Persons Act stipulates that public buildings must be accessible, but one study showed that most are not adapted to the needs of such persons.
Conventional educational spaces are not propitious for people with disabilities, and in Ghana, the few specialized schools do not have sufficient funds or resources.
At the Akropong School for the Blind, three students share the same team to learn Braille because funds are limited, according to a report by the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). Simon Adedeme, head of the primary education department, described the situation as an obstacle to teaching and learning.
In many higher education institutions, faculty, administrators, and students often have very limited knowledge and lack the resources to deal with the structural marginalization of students with disabilities.
Many disabled people are encouraged to pursue vocational training and other types of physical work, while at the same time being discouraged from intellectual training in various areas of higher education.
Only three of Ghana's 46 colleges of education have been designated as inclusive education centers where disabled people can earn a bachelor's degree in education and train to become a primary school teacher.
Enrollment in these three institutions remains very low despite recent efforts to improve structures and attract more people with disabilities to the teaching profession.
It is imperative to work closely with these students to ensure that genuine inclusion and access are realized and maintained. This requires working actively to implement all relevant policies so that people with disabilities are not left out of education in Ghana, during or after the pandemic.