By A Staff Reporter Kathmandu, Oct. 5: Educational institutions in Nepal have transitioned to online learning as a way to stay safe during the COVID-19 pancemic. And while myriads of Nepali teachers, students and parents adapt and grapple with the effects of virtual classrooms, the pandemic is taking a far more disastrous toll on the students with hearing-impairment. Even before the pandemic, under normal circumstances, education for the hearing-impaired students was not easily accessible. There are only 22 designated educational institutions for the deaf across the country and only three provide education up to Grade 12. Just one campus, the Central Secondary School for the Deaf in Naxal, Kathmandu offers a Bachelor’s Degree -- that too only in Education (B. Ed.)—to hearing-impaired students, and there is no private school for the deaf. Rabita Deula from Kathmandu is a second-year student of the Bachelor in Education programme. She was deaf by birth. Like many students of her age, Deula harbours a dream to carve out a fulfilling career for herself but in the days of a spiraling coronavirus crisis, her plans have come to a grinding halt. Today, all 22 education institutions for the deaf and 174 government-run resource classes (that teach the NSL for hearing impaired) are shut. It still remains unclear when they will reopen. “But what’s even more troubling is that none of these institutions has considered zoom classes,” further purports Deula. For the last six months, Deula’s education has been disrupted and with no virtual classes, she has joined the ranks of thousands of deaf students who are now deprived of their rightful education. Like her, Sanyukta Shrestha of Grade 10 spends her days mostly idling around with no classes to attend. “I finished my Grade 9 in Chaitra but haven’t attended a single class for Grade 10. It’s troubling to even think that I might not be able to appear the Secondary Education Examination this year,” Sanyukta said. She can’t access the audio-visual thematic lessons offered by Nepali Radio FMs and even cable and dish services for students up to Grade 10 because they lack sign-language interpreter or speech-to-text services. “This is an urgent issue of inequality,” bemoaned Surya Bahadur Budhathoki, General Secretary of the National Federation of the Deaf (NDFN). “Deaf students are not being considered as valued members of the college learning community despite inclusion,” he said. Even though the government has issued ‘Rules Relating to Rights of Persons with Disabilities-2020’, it does not address how digital education, including online classroom teaching, will be made accessible. Reputed deaf education institutions like the Central Secondary School for the Deaf have not been able to provide online classes until now because of the ever-present rural-urban divide. “Most of our students come from remote areas outside of the Capital where Internet access is a problem,” explains Upendra Parajuli, Principal of the campus. However, after the gap of six months, the campus finally began conducting zoom classes for Grade 1 to 10 since October 1. “It’s wrong to think that deaf students are facing accessibility issue only after the pandemic,” said Sudha Sharma, NSL instructor in one of the government-run resource classes in Mahottari. “There were no sign language interpreters so I did most of my learning on my own without the help of teachers,” she stated. Sharma, who herself attended her Bachelor in Education from an institution for non-deaf, strongly believes that educational institutions must be sensitised about the needs of students with disabilities.