The DRC (Disability Rights Commission) are currently supporting a legal case brought about by a student, who claims that she was discriminated against when taking an online exam for a professional qualification. The complaints include one about unreasonable demands for evidence of disability, and one about requests for reasonable accommodations.
Hoop 1: Prove Your Disability
The SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disability Act) states that educational institutions must make reasonable adjustments for disabled students in order to avoid substantial disadvantage. However, in order for those reasonable adjustments to be made in the exam room, many institutions need actual evidence of disability. For those students who are known to their educational institution, evidence may not necessarily mean a medical certificate, as a tutor’s or other adviser’s statement may be enough.
However, in the legal case mentioned above, the professional body running the assessment had not actually met the student as most of her studies were completed electronically. So in this case, actual medical proof was their only recourse to evidence of disability, before any special accommodations could be made. Including a suite of preferences as part of the test software could have helped with some of the accommodations the student required and may even have avoided the need for the provision of evidence of her disability.
Hoop 2: Take the Test the Hard Way
In the legal case mentioned above, the student was not allowed to take her own laptop into the exam room nor was she allowed to use a screen reader to access the test, because the professional body felt that installation of software from outside their test suite could put the security of their test at risk.
In this case, both parties’ requests could be considered as reasonable - the student’s request for additional software in order to take the test and the testing body’s refusal on the grounds of security. Security issues around assessment are a common fear. If an exam body wants to keep the quality of its qualifications high, then security will be paramount. But where does this leave the student who needs additional software in order to access the test? In this case, the student was offered the services of a reader and extra time - it was not an ideal solution for her, but was one with which the testing body was happy. This is probably not an isolated incident - there are no doubt many conflicts between what the student really needs to take an online test and with what the testing body feels comfortable about allowing the student to use. Compromises are made, but perhaps it is the student who always ends up with the worst deal.
Levelling the Playing Field
So would it be worthwhile for test centres (and maybe other online test providers) to provide generic accommodations? Offering a text reader or screen magnification software as part of the test software suite could remove the need for some students to provide evidence of their disability and could reduce the worry for exam bodies about compromising security.
Screen readers, for example, are a common type of assistive technology and come in various shapes and sizes. Although it would be impossible to provide screen readers to suit everyone’s needs, it might be possible to provide one cut-down or authoritative version simply to allow students to access online assessments, as long as the student was allowed to practise using the technology well in advance. This could keep costs down and possibly improve a student’s interaction with the test software, if practice runs have been made available.
Availability of such technology would also depend on the type of test being undertaken but for online exams, where reading the questions aloud did not defeat the actual purpose of the question, providing access to even one type of assistive technology could go a long way to including rather than excluding people. Of course, the questions would also need to be screen reader-friendly and alternatives to questions containing graphs or images may need to be offered, but providing accessible and/or alternative questions may benefit all students.
I’m not saying that one size should fit all. Many disabled students will still need to use their own particular type of technology but including some common types of assistive technology in a test software suite could help level the playing field. In an ideal world, students would be able to set their own preferences, use their own software and even have assessments based on their particular learning styles.
Above all, it is imperative that exam bodies and educational institutions who provide online tests are clear about what is actually being tested (is it the student’s ability to interact with the test software or their knowledge and understanding of a particular subject?) and to ensure that any assessment clearly reflects that goal in a user-friendly and supportive manner. After all, assessment in any form is usually stressful enough without having to jump through extra hoops.