Supporting girls with disabilities during COVID-19

02 December 2020 by Freya Perry, Education Adviser, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

What is the impact of COVID-19 on children with disabilities?
COVID-19 will have had a profound impact on children with disabilities. GEC surveys from Leave No Girl Behind projects have shown a high prevalence of psychosocial impairments prior to COVID-19. Most projects identified between 5-12% of their girls as having psychosocial impairments, and one project identified this as being as high as 20%. It is expected this will be exacerbated by COVID-19, and many GEC beneficiaries are likely to experience increased rates of anxiety, depression, and isolation. Moreover, children with disabilities are further likely to have been exposed to violence in the home during school closures. As well as schools and learning centres, many essential services and therapies have closed. And while education technology can provide accessibility opportunities (e.g. screen readers, sign language interpretation), these are often not affordable to the families of children with disabilities.

How has the GEC responded to the needs of girls with disabilities?
The GEC, like many programmes, is working from a very limited evidence base regarding COVID-19 and its impact on girls with disabilities. However, the GEC has first sought to understand the experiences, challenges and needs of girls with disabilities during school closures. This has required an increased focus on collecting and using disability-disaggregated education data (including noting different impairments) via remote data collection methods. Organisations of Persons with Disabilities have played a critical role in helping projects to respond appropriately to the multiple challenges girls with different disabilities are facing due to COVID-19. 

Global research, such as that done by the Inclusive Education Initiative, as well as GEC country surveys have highlighted that a key concern for parents of students with disabilities during school closures is learning loss, and that the lack of academic support, assistive devices and accessible learning materials are a major barrier to learning. Direct support to girls with disabilities has therefore included the provision of learning packs and technology. For example, Gift, a 14-year old girl with albinism, has been receiving learning materials, sanitary kits and counselling support from the GEC’s Empowering Girls with Disabilities in Uganda through Education project, delivered by Cheshire Services Uganda. 

In addition, our approach has increased its focus on safeguarding beneficiaries, considering their increased vulnerability during the pandemic. These include developing standard operating procedures on keeping in touch with girls, taking into account issues such as online grooming – which became a heightened risk during COVID19. Some of our support resources can be found here under ‘safeguarding’.  

These approaches have been accompanied by support to parents to educate, stimulate and protect learners with disabilities at home, as well as remote training to build the capacity of educators to strengthen and adapt inclusive teaching approaches and to provide psychosocial support.

Spotlight: Leonard Cheshire in Kenya
In Kenya, the GEC project run by Leonard Cheshire has been supporting 2,100 girls and 678 boys. The project is running from 2017 – 2022 in 83 educational institutions including 50 primary schools, 25 secondary schools and 8 vocational institutions across 5 sub-counties of the lake region: Kisumu East, Siaya, Homabay, Migori, and Kuria East. Prior to COVID-19, the project carried out diverse activities including the training and mentoring of teachers, delivery of child-to-child clubs in schools, distribution of assistive devices, capacity strengthening of government officers, advocacy and influencing at the county and national levels, and worked with parent support groups to change attitudes in the wider community. All of these approaches relied on frequent, in-person contact between project specialist staff and the girls, teachers, parents and government officials with whom they worked. 

Since April 2020, phone and online surveys with girls with disabilities, their parents and organisations of persons with disabilities have supported project teams to collect additional disaggregated data on access to COVID-19 related information, education, employment, social protection and health care as well as on issues of social isolation and gender-based violence. The results of this rapid research showed that girls with disabilities were more likely not to receive help on their homework from an adult in the household, not believe that going to school was important for their future, have a higher chore burden and regularly not have sanitary wear. More than half (62%) of parents also reported that their child lacked accessible education resources and 81% of teachers reported that they were not able to reach children through remote learning technologies, but that they did have mobile phones (94%). This additional information and data has been critical to guiding the response.

Implementing partner Leonard Cheshire have subsequently continued to train teachers remotely on inclusive education and adaptive technology to enable teachers to support learners with disabilities from home. They are also supporting parents to engage with their children during the extended school closures and have produced a guidance note for parents on how best to support their child with disabilities to learn at home, helping them to identify the way in which their child learns best and then providing tips, ideas and examples on how to provide this style of learning. This is then enhanced by regular communications, including follow-up calls and bulk SMS messaging in English and Swahili to keep parents engaged in their children’s learning. Such low-tech approaches have been shown to be effective in increasing radio-learning uptake and improving learning in similar low-income country contexts during COVID-19 school closures, although the evidence base for children with disabilities is still less clear.

In addition, accessible messaging on safeguarding, gender-based violence and COVID-19 in sign language, Kiswahili and Dholuo have been circulated among local WhatsApp networks, through radio messaging and short videos. Meanwhile, to address the economic impacts to families of children with disabilities and acknowledging the negative impact this will have on the most vulnerable, targeted cash-transfers and dignity packs have further been provided to girls with disabilities. In order to respond to the increase in violence in the home, an accessible, toll-free helpline for reporting abuse and safeguarding issues has also been established.