Supporting students with disabilities in university examinations


by dullhunk on flickr

by dullhunk on flickr

It’s exam time at NUIM, and so thoughts go to supporting candidates with disabilities in their examinations.


We currently have about 40 different configurations of examination accommodations in our system. These include

  • Extra Time: The vast majority of candidates require additional time only, generally 10 minutes per hour. These students are generally those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
  • Smaller Venue: Many candidates benefit from taking their examinations in smaller rooms as opposed to the large exam halls. This group can include those who are easily distracted, require rest breaks or use computers.
  • Readers and Scribes: A reader is someone who reads the paper and script to the candidate. A scribe writes down what a candidate dictates. I’ll come back to these later.
  • Use of a PC: Candidates with visual difficulties, specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyspraxia) or physical conditions that make writing by hand impractical can use a computer to write their answers.
  • Other supports include enlarged papers, coloured papers, different furniture, separate venues. 

With almost three hundred candidates to accommodate, you can appreciate that there needs to be a good relationship between the Disability Office, Computer Services and most importantly, the Examinations Office. This solid relationship is in place now, but some years ago, it wasn’t the case. Some years ago, NUIM was faced with rising numbers of students with disabilities who needed to be supported in their examinations. The need to have additional rooms, invigilators, computers and support for these candidates puts strain on existing services and the three offices found they needed to communicate more much earlier.

While it seems very obvious in retrospect, having the three offices talking, sharing expertise and solutions has rsulted in a successful and suatainable model of supporting students in examinations.

  • The Disability Office with the student identifies what accomodations are required. An accomodation (or more likely a combination of accomodations) is represented by a code, and the candidate is tagged with this code on our University system. The student signs off on this accommodation.
  • The Examinations Office can read this code in the system and they run off a report by an agreed date. The Disability Office and the student need to have signed off on the supports by that date. This allows the Examinations Office to begin thinking about the resources (buildings, staff etc) that will be needed. Note that the Disability Office does not provide or organise resources for the examinations; this is squarely the remit of the Examinations Office. After all, the Examinations Office are best-placed to ensure the integrity of the examinations.
  • If computer equipment is needed, the Computer Centre makes arrangements for this. They configure, test and support candidates using standard equipment and software throughout the examinations. If a candidate needs assistive technology such as JAWS or ZoomText, the Disability Office works with the Computer Centre to ensure that this is available and functioning on the exam setup. The Disability Office are on call when assistive technology is being used.

All of this is achieved through early and open conversation. Now in our third year, I’m pleased to report that we have had no ‘crisis calls’ on the BatPhone (so far) this January. The system is working.

Our next step is to see if we can replace human readers and scribes with technology. But that’s a whole other post…

And let’s not get started on promoting alternative forms of assessment (yet).

6 responses to “Supporting students with disabilities in university examinations

  1. Just wondering. Student use of their own computers so their settings are there? (Both reading and Speech Recognition/Dictation). This has been the hardest thing to push over here, but I think it is a “future must” as people personalise their AT.

  2. Boy do I wish you could take that one piece and come to New York with it on a whirlwind tour to educate local and regional colleges on how to do this and how easy it is when everyone communicates and is there for people in need I was inspired thanks
    Dave S

  3. Hi Ira, we have dodged that bullet for the moment, but behind the scenes we are making preparations for it. All three offices agree that the use of students’ own technology is inevitable. While we have some space before we need to implement it, we are looking at how security and support can be provided.

    Some software I notice (e.g. JAWS) make it very easy to transfer personal settings to other computers, but we are working on ways to make provision for the students’ own equipment.

  4. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for that. When I think of how fractious the system was before we realised that we needed joined up thinking, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come.

    I’m very heartened that the partners all buy in to the system now so that the future developments (i.e. some of the things that Ira mention) can be implemented, as long as all three continue open dialogue and invite involvement.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Enda,

    With some professors we’ve managed to create “exam profiles” on student computers that seem to pass the “security” test, but we cannot get policy yet. I’m also jealous of your dialogue.

    David, if you are interested, we’re trying to assemble a series of “summits” on this with the New York Hall of Science. Keep in touch.

    Enda, are you going to CAL in Brighton?


  6. I think an advantage over here is that faculty have very little involvement with the management of exams. The Exams Office are charged with that task, so if they OK something, then it’ll happen. Much of the groundwork that we had to do was convincing Exams that we had a shared interest in the integrity of the examination. Once that was achieved, they would listen to our suggestions/proposals and see where the vulnerabilities were so that we could attempt to reduce or eliminate the risks from their perspective.

    I hadn’t looked at CAL. I think I need to wait and see what the line-up is like before I go asking for cash in the current climate! Will you be there?

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