Tag Archives: accessibility

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).


Ira Socol’s 2009: The Year of Universal Access

We could do away with 90% of “special needs” today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time “this way” would make education work better than “the old way.” Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities.

…we don’t call those wearing eyeglasses “special needs.” […] we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings – not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Ira has a fantastic couple of posts over at SpeEdChange at the moment on Universal Access {part 1 and part 2}. 

In the Disability Office here, our mantra is that we are trying to make ourselves redundant by making the university environment inclusive to all from the outset, effectively making the category of ‘special needs’ redundant.

Ira explains it far better than I could, so the posts are very much worth your time if you are involved at any level in the delivery or consumption of content in education. Staff at NUIM might like to take a look at some of the resources in our staff area or have a look through our links in delicious.

Where it’s AT?

Students watching a tutor demonstrate a Chemistry experimentLocation, location, location.  I’ll soon have a chance to restructure the location and method of assistive technology delivery on campus and I’m interested in feedback.

At the moment, we have a good-sized Assitive Technology Centre with 12 computers, CCTV, wireless projector, two offices, two small rooms (no natural light, a litle small), several scanners, Inspiration, TextHelp. JAWS, Dragon, Kurzweil 3000 & 1000, ZoomText (all local installations). This is where we give students training and where many students registered with the Disability Office like to work.

Our Library are planning an expansion and a rethink of the services they offer. They want to encourage users to see the library less a place of ‘silent reference’ and more of a collaborative learning space. They already have a small room with two PCs with assistive technology, but I reckon we have an opportunity to be more imaginative.

Next semester we will have TextHelp and Inspiration on every PC across the campus. As these are our most popular applications, I reckon that by mainstreaming their availability, the needs of a lot of students will be taken care of. Students with mild dyslexia for example won’t need to use the current ATC.

So, what shall we do? We still need a space to train all students in the use of assistive technology, whether that be in small groups or individually. We need somewhere to house the less network-friendly applications such as JAWS, and we need a place to develop our production of alternate format media. We also need a space for students to receive learning support in small groups and ideally we’d like to have a space with technology where students can collaborate.

Right now, I think there is an opportunity for the Library to build a small Learning Lab where students can receive training in the use of educational technology (Moodle, how to use electronic research resources, RefWorks, EndNote), general ICT (using Word, internet, file management, ECDL) and maybe the mainstreamed AT titles (Inspiration & TextHelp). We could also have some scanners for students to create their own altformat material (what better place than the library?).

The existing ATC then could be where the heavy-duty assistive technology is located. The Higher Education Authority in Ireland have set targets for us to double our intake of students with sensory disabilities, so I anticipate a greater need for JAWS, ZoomText and Kurzweil 1000. These more-specialist titles could be housed in the existing ATC to facilitate these learners for whom it’s impractical to have to track down free space in the general computer labs and where there is a dedicated AT specialist who can be on hand to quickly troubleshoot and support.

I see the production of altformat as being located in the library too. They are currently engaged in converting material into digital format so they have the tools and the know-how. We can work with them to ensure that the material they are producing meets standards of accessibility and take advantage of their clout as librarians to deals with publishers and copyright issues. They also have superb means of storage and distribution.

I’m interested in any feedback from those of you who may already have gone through this, users of assistive technology or any objective opinion.

Blindness & Responsibility

I was reading the healthcare supplement in today’s Guardian which was about looking after one’s eyes when I came across some articles about the impact of blindness/visual impairment on employment prospects. Apparently two thirds of people with severe visual impairments are unemployed and the same number again have no formal qualifications, and this is in a country (the UK) with quite robust disability legislation. I must admit I was a little shocked at those figures. Why should I be shocked? Well, I work as Assistive Technology Advisor in NUI Maynooth, one of seven Irish universities and one that is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellence in accommodating learners with disabilities. On Tuesday, I was in UCC, my alma mater, to attend a meeting of people in the sector involved in the production and distribution of material in alternative formats. 

Alternative format (AF), as you may know, involves ensuring that text is easily available and accessible to those who have difficulty with printed material. AF may include Braille, audio or PDF, but the consensus is that material in simple text or HTML gives users the most flexibility.

At the meeting were representatives from various Irish universities, many of whom gave presentations on the work they do to help ensure that the ‘print disabled’ have access to core and other texts. It was a fascinating morning and I was struck (and heartened) by the passion shown by these people in the various ways they chose to facilitate learners in their academic pursuits.Image of student with visual impairment on flim set at NUI Maynooth

At NUIM, we have only had one student who was blind (so far). we currently have three students with visual impairments but the bulk of students registered with the Disability Office are those with dyslexia, who also benefit hugely from having easy access to material in accessible digital format. From September we will text-to-speech software available on all PCs across campus, which will greatly benefit many students with milder forms of dyslexia. This, along with the increasing use of Moodle by faculty and moves to encourage good practice in the creation of digital documents, is helping to make the environment at the university conducive to many with print disabilities. But not all.


Some 66% of blind or partially sighted people of working age are unemployed, and nearly the same number again (67%) have no formal qualifications, according to latest figures.

So, despite all the good work and the availablity of technological solutions, a shockingly high number of people are not getting any formal qualifications in the UK. What’s going wrong?

As people involved in education/technology in education, we need to push the accessibility agenda as much as possible. If a new tool or elearning strategy is being promoted, we need to question its accessibility to all. Last year, a company approached NUIM with an essay writing module that could be added to Moodle. Luckily, the university approached te Disability Office for our opinion on it before they agreed to purchase. It turned out that, while the content was excellent and the interface was pretty, it was Flash-based and caused unnecessary difficulties for learners using screenreaders such as JAWS. We recommended that the company provide a HTML or text-based accessible version or else we could not purchase (interestingly, we cannot by law purchase inaccessible services!). 

There have been situations alas, where institutions have not consulted others about the accessibility of services and gone ahead, putting themselves at legal risk but also excluding the needs of learners. And often needlessly, sometimes all it takes is a little rewrite, a little consideration in formatting, to ensure greater inclusivity. No great sacrifice.

If we are vigilant here, we can encourage good practice in the creation of accessible elearning strategies which benefit all.

And we can get that shocking statistic down to something more reasonable.