Perumal, a student of the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities (NIEPVD) in Chennai was busy at his desk typing out a sample letter. His fingers moved swiftly on the keyboard and the text that appeared on the screen was absolutely error-free.

Perumal has been blind since childhood, but that doesn't stop him from performing normal office tasks like typing, thanks to simple software like JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a simple technology that has a talk back feature. This feature lets people like Perumal hear what they are typing in order to ensure to keep their text error-free.

Meanwhile, C C Kasimany, the training officer in-charge at the institute, who also lost his vision in early childhood manoeuvred easily across his office and settled down at his desk with a copy of the day's braille newspaper. As he read out the day's headlines to me, he spoke about how the new COVID strain that is soon spreading across the world is worrying.

These braille newspapers are printed in the institute using braille printers imported from Norway, each cost about Rs 64 lakhs. It is from here that all braille textbooks for schools across Tamil Nadu are printed. There are several features, and technology, like this which make the lives of students with physical disabilities much easier.

Jesse P Francis, Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics, St. Joseph's University, Bengaluru, has been actively pursuing inclusive methods of education.

As someone who is blind in one eye, Francis had to face struggles during his student years. Even a day's exam would strain his eyes, making it hard to cope with the schedule if there were back-to-back exams. After a short stint with an NGO named proVISION in Bengaluru and seeing how lives were transformed there, Francis was encouraged to work towards inclusive education.

Speaking about the challenges that students with disabilities face in mainstream education institutions, he said, "Challenges come in different ways: accessibility to the classroom is one. In one of the colleges I previously worked at, that was a major challenge until a lift was constructed to make the first floor accessible.

"Even then, uneven corridors with stairs on both floors make navigation harder for students with disabilities. Later when I moved to St. Joseph's University Bangalore (previously St Joseph's College (Autonomous), I was surprised to see how each building is carefully designed with proper accessibility to each classroom for students/staff with disability.

"The second challenge is educational content. Textbooks do not have a Braille version. Something of interest now is the present focus on visual/aural learning (through videos) and digital content like worksheets. When teachers design such content, we are often forgetful of students with disabilities.

"A major argument against investing time to make content accessible is either that they have no present students with challenges like that/or that such students are a minority. Also, teachers, as opposed to popular belief, are overworked (they are teachers, mentors, administrators, and researchers, all at once), hence, hesitant to take up extra effort to make their content accessible."

"The third is the lack of sensitisation among teachers. I remember a lab examination during which a student blind in one eye came forward saying his eyes are irritated and he is not able to proceed further. Thankfully, my colleague and I, the staff in charge that day, were both blind in one eye, we understood the need and let him rest for a while before continuing.

"Another student approached saying she needs special settings to make the computer accessible. Being aware of the possibilities helped me step in and offer her help to set up the system. Sometimes teachers do not understand the specific needs, rather, start showering them with extra attention that is not required."

In November 2021, the University Grants Commission urged universities to conduct up to 40 per cent of the courses online, using the SWAYAM website. The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 also stressed that conducting online classes had a wider reach.

There are several attempts being made to encourage students to opt for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with the aim to make the best teaching resources accessible to all. While previously the limit was just 20 per cent, increasing the limit to 40 per cent means that currently, teachers are being replaced with recorded videos and readily available reading and learning material.

The SWAYAM portal has video lectures by teachers across the country and any student can cover up to 40 percent of the course on this platform. Although there have been debates about the quality of teaching and the need for face-to-face-interaction, that is for another discussion.

However, while this approach aims to provide better accessibility for economically weaker students, it could pose a challenge for physically disadvantaged students, if not thought out well.

Francis believes that to make education more inclusive for students with disabilities, this is where we need to step in and make regulations. He said, "these videos and learning materials, in the Indian context, will remain in use for a few years to come. We need to assure that they are made right, that we rise above the argument that 'I don't have any students with challenges right now, so why should I bother about it?'

"Institutions are already adopting the 60-40 equation, they are outsourcing selected courses like Open Electives under NEP-2020 or making content in-house. Unlike the UK's norms on accessible teaching content, India does not have any along those lines at present, or even if it is there, there is no awareness about it among teachers/institutions."

So what are some of the ways education can be made more inclusive for Persons with Disabilities (PwD)? There are several simple tools like screen readers and options to use cellphones using TalkBack, a stepping stone to further exploring technology. Jesse also suggested that sometimes, all it takes is the simple, minimal technology.

Francis suggested the following:

1. Embedding subtitles into videos helps people with hearing impairment follow the videos. Design videos in such a way that it can also be followed visually, not entirely dependent on audio.

2. When inserting an image, give Alt-texts. That assists screen readers to describe the image better. Newer versions of Office apps auto-generate and prompt one to review when an image is inserted.

3. While teaching, also explore available Braille books in the subjects of interest.

4. Create general awareness among teachers on various physical, visual, and mental impairments, and how to be sensitive to them. Software like JAWS/Screen readers in mobile like TalkBack. There are scanners available, which can scan books and read them out to the blind.

5. Creating a pool of readily available resources like a Braille section in their library (MCC has an entire section in the library with Braille books).

6. The good old technology of yellow tiles one sees in metro stations and main streets helps a person with visual impairment stay on course.

7. For online classes, teachers can enable live captions. Most platforms like Teams have it. That can help students with low hearing follow the lectures or those who are slow to grasp."

Rishi Vadana, a Special Education coordinator currently working on developing accessible mathematics content for all boards said, "children with visual impairment (VI) are not provided with STEM education after primary level.

"As there are visual elements in both maths and science concepts, teachers and educational institutions are not taking efforts to teach them even using easily available materials. So most of the VI children pursue/opt for arts courses in higher education (college).

"There are enough tactile materials available which are specially designed for them. Using all kinds of tactile materials and real objects will help VI children to know the living world better."

She added, "most of the concepts in maths and Science can be taught using real objects. What we need at the moment are trained teachers, knowing the availability of tactile materials, passionate educators, allowing students to opt for maths/sci courses in higher grades in school which in turn helps them to pursue a degree in science stream, providing braille books to VI teachers and VI children. As of now, there are no maths and science textbooks available in Braille."

According to Vadana, "content is created by referring to all the boards, gradewise and chapterwise. Content includes discussion and interaction, hands-on activities, physical activities and peer play. So for VI children/ VI teachers to access this content online, they'll require a screen reader to read it out. One of the commonly used screen readers is NVDA. Normal text can be easily read by a screen reader.

"But equations are difficult for screen readers to recognise. There is a software called mathtype where we can type equations using it and paste those to a working document. Equations typed out using this software will make it accessible and recognisable by screen readers."

Another technology that can be used is the P.I.A.F ( picture in a flash), a machine which is used to make raised line drawings/ tactile graphics. Children can place their hands on the raised line drawings and understand the images/drawings by touch.

Dr Robinson, a mathematics professor at Madras Christian College recalled some of his students with Visual impairment. He said, "they have problems in understanding diagrammatic representations. So I had to do some raised line diagrams to teach those concepts. My work was designing universal tools which are inclusive. I have experimented with some tools. These are very physical tools, which students with VI can touch and feel." Dr Robinson is currently waiting for some of his tools to be patented.

While visually impaired students cannot really benefit from the endless advantages of Virtual Reality since binocular vision is key to that experience, the possibilities of VR in aiding inclusive education are yet to be explored.

One good strategy, Francis said, would be to follow the University of Helsinki's attempt. "They educated the general public about what AI is and what kind of problems are solvable by AI. The sample included schoolchildren, dentists, teachers, and people from different professions.

"Then they asked them to look at their day-to-day life and identify activities that can be done by AI - enabling them to identify many problems. Similarly, a social experiment to identify how AI can be used to better integrate students with disabilities in the classroom can bring out many solutions."

Another possibility, according to Francis, is AR. "Given how Live Transcribe tools are getting better each day, allowing a student with auditory impairment to listen to lectures with the assistance of freely available live-transcribe tools (baked into Android these days) would help them learn/follow lectures better."

According to Tushar, a researcher at NIEPVD Chennai, "when children with visual impairment go to mainstream educational institutions, the main challenge is the lack of professionally trained manpower. Teachers are available, but they are not trained to teach children with special needs.

"The other challenge is availability of adaptive teaching learning materials, study materials, sports and recreational activity materials, lab materials, all these infrastructure are needed. For instance, we are doing our best to provide braille textbooks for all schools, but textbooks alone are not enough.

"A lot of other assisted devices are needed, especially for subjects like maths and science. But they are quite costly, most of them are made abroad. For instance, if anatomy is being taught, there are tactile models of heart and brain and other organs available, so that students can touch and feel.

"Similarly, to teach refraction, there are tactile models available. At the same time, students also need adaptive play materials, not just study materials. A lot of the games need to be modified.

"Now based on legal provisions that no child should be left behind, schools do not deny admission to children with disabilities, but there needs to be more than that, at least some basic training on how to teach children with disabilities."

There are a lot of infrastructural barriers as well. In 2016, the Ministry of Urban Development came up with a guideline to have a barrier free environment for persons with disabilities and elderly persons. According to these guidelines, there were several specifications down to the width and height of doors, colour of tiles or flooring, flooring material, ramp gradient, etc.

However, engineers and architects are not often aware of these guidelines. For instance, Tushar said, "some institutions do have wheelchair ramps, but they're so steep that wheelchair users can't really use them. There are so-called accessible toilets which are practically not accessible.

"This is due to lack of awareness within the construction sector. For instance, there are yellow tiles with lines and dots, which gives a tactile warning to visually impaired people. But engineers and architects are not aware of where these tiles are available.

"There are also a lot of attitude barriers. In some places like Delhi, they provide permanent employment to special educators, which encourages them to take up the profession. They are appointing lots and lots of special educators. In states like Tamil Nadu, it is very less."

"The government of India is taking care of providing assisted devices like wheelchairs and educational material but they are targeted towards lower income groups. Since India has a large population, it is not easy to reach everyone. People have started developing accessible formats of e-books and e content. A lot of the websites are accessible, but there's room for a lot more improvement. Platforms like Bookshare international are producing digital books which can be accessible for all. A lot of such initiatives are there."