Access to examinations for deaf students

The Disability Discrimination (General Qualifications Bodies) (Relevant Qualifications, Reasonable Steps and Physical Features) (Amendments) Regulations 2008 came into force on the 24th October.

Wait, don’t go yet! It may have the most uninspiring name ever given to a set of regulations, but these regulations are an important step forward in a long running saga over examinations. It’s a saga that involves breathtaking stupidity, a complete and utter misunderstanding of what disability equality means, and deaf people being punished for not being able to hear in an exam.

DunceTo give a bit of history, around 3 years ago, examination awarding bodies suddenly decided to drop provisions in place that were in place to help disabled candidates access examinations. It basically meant that if an exam was not accessible, a disabled student would have their marks wiped off their total grades. Apparently, the ‘integrity’ of the exams was more important. And, they also thought it would be in line with disability equality legislation. It makes you wonder about the people who look after the exams system really. At no point were disabled people or charities consulted about these changes.

Working with other charities, NDCS led a campaign to reverse this. The awarding bodies finally backed down last year, and agreed to re-instate exemptions. This bascially meant that a disabled candidate could opt out of a part of an exam if they were not able to access it, and get marks for the bits that they did do.

The problem with this is that if a student only does 70% of the exam, there is 30% that he/she won’t get marks for no matter how hard they try. This is where the new regulations come in – they introduce ‘enhancements’ so the marks that a student gets for the bit they did do is treated as if it is was the whole 100% of the exam. In practice, this was already being done and the new regulations just explicitly confirm that this in line with disability equality.

It’s an important step forward. But I’m not popping champagne corks just yet.

Firstly, the original draft of the regulations would also have included ‘certificate indications’. This is basically where if a disabled student is unable to access an exam, their certificates would list all the bits they did and all the bits they didn’t do. We felt it was unfair – it is not the student’s fault if the exam is designed in a way which forces them to have an exemption. We also felt it would stigmatise disabled students. If you were an employer, would you be more or less likely to employ a person whose qualifications resemble Swiss cheese?

Over the summer, we had to do a bit of lobbying to get the reference to certificate indications removed from the regulations. We won that battle. Though certificate indications are still in use, including them in the regulations would have resulted in them being widespread. Now they are only to be used as a last resort. There remains a debate going on over the long-term place of certificate indications in the system.

Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of this still feel likes tinkering at the edges without there being a more fundamental look at the examinations system. If examinations were truly accessible to disabled people, designed in flexible ways that allow them to demonstrate their abilities, there would be no need for exemptions, for enhancements or for certificate indications. Awarding bodies have been far too slow to think about this.

To be fair, there appears to be moves in this direction and there have been some positive meetings recently. But one still gets the impression that awarding bodies still don’t quite ‘get it’, and would love us to stop standing up for the rights of disabled children so they can go back to their ‘pure’ system of exams where if you can’t access an examination, tough. I find it depressing that the people with such control over people’s life chances, appear so relucant to enable and empower disabled people.

It’s very depressing indeed. I would grade the regulations as an OK effort. But the awarding bodies really need to buck up their attitudes in the long-run. And we need to remain vigilant.


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