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School Closures Particularly Hard on Children with Disabilities

“There Are Situations Where At-Home Learning Can Be Great. This Is Not One of Them.”

A teacher and a child match squares at Balama Center, an organization that offers support to children with autism in Almaty, Kazakhstan. © 2018 Timur Karpov

On May 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch launched a survey to learn more about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students, parents and caregivers. As of June 6, people in 54 countries had completed the survey; it’s still open here—please fill it out! The following dispatches highlight some of the themes that have come through most strongly, and we’ll keep adding to this page. The survey is helping us identify issues of concern and hear from people experiencing them—any data is not intended to be representative of the experiences of the broader population.

With schools around the world closed due to Covid-19, many students are struggling to keep their education on track. But children with disabilities can be among the hardest hit, as they and their caregivers face particular obstacles, respondents in an ongoing Human Rights Watch survey explained.

The survey looks at the impact of the pandemic on students and caregivers. “Not being on our regular routine has been detrimental to my children’s social and emotional wellbeing,” a mother of two children with disabilities in the United States said. “Home learning is not for my kids.”

As schools shifted rapidly to remote education, services for children with disabilities often fell by the wayside. Another mother said that one-on-one support for her two children with disabilities “completely stopped.”

Professional services offered by schools and other programs have also been interrupted. “Carer support from agencies was reduced when it needed to be increased,” a caregiver for a child with complex psychosocial needs in Australia wrote.

The switch to online learning and services is a problem for some children with disabilities. “Our son has a strong reaction to screens, and remote learning has made his symptoms and experiences worse,” a mother wrote. “We have had to forego getting therapists to talk to him until recently because the longer he is on screens, the worse he feels.”

Caregivers are stretched to the limit. “Employer was very flexible initially,” one mother wrote. “However, the longer this stretches out, the flexibility is reducing, and the expectation is that all is normal, and I have the same level of availability as I did previously (when I had childcare).” Women are particularly affected. Globally, women do two-and-a-half times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, and 84 percent of lone-parent households are headed by women.

Governments should help schools urgently reach out to children with disabilities and ensure they can continue their studies and any support services during school closures. As schools re-open, governments should ensure at-risk children, including children with disabilities, return.

Governments and schools should compare who left school and who came back and seek out those who fell away, particularly children with disabilities. The right to education for children with disabilities should not be another casualty of this pandemic.

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