Fri, Sep 23, 2022
Read in 6 minutes
Many kids with visual impairment rely on digital material they then cannot use when doing State exams. That is not 'reasonable accommodation', when instead secure digital documents could be in use. I put this to the Minister for Education at a recent meeting of the Disability Matters Committee. I was heartened by the Minister's response to take it away and consult with the State Examination Commission.
Neasa Hourigan TD: As I only have six minutes, I will focus on one issue. My fellow committee members have raised many other issues.
Recently, I dealt with a mum who contacted me because her eldest son, who has done his leaving certificate, and her youngest child, who has entered the leaving certificate years, are visually impaired. I empathise with this mother because my child, though much younger, is in a similar position. During Covid, a huge amount of the teaching online was very challenging for children who are visually impaired. Much of the teaching was digital in nature and required a lot of technology. I cannot fault the Department because, from my experience, the technology is both freely available and excellent. During Covid, there was a working method that was very much digital and online. We learned to rely on it, and secondary school students who are moving towards independence very much rely on it.
As already referred to by one of my colleagues, the use of digital technology does not exactly happen during State examinations. The State Examinations Commission is an independent body but it does sit within the Department. The reality is that children who have worked, studied and learned through digital means for their whole education - and my ten-year-old is doing everything on a Polaris, which is like an laptop without a screen - cannot work in the same way when sitting State examinations. To me, that seems like a very clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Department’s stance disadvantages children because they have learned one way and then are asked to sit State examinations in a completely different way. A simple fix would be to allow for PDF versions of examination papers. When it comes to a clear breach of human rights, although the State Examinations Commission is a non-departmental public body, in this case it would be appropriate for the Department to step in with the commission, whose representatives I have met, and say that action needs to be taken fast.
We have discussed the issue of reasonable accommodations. I brought a copy of the detailed Irish document on reasonable accommodations to the meeting. Let me cite the UK example as best practice. By my word count, the document is about four times as long as the Irish document and is incredibly detailed. In the UK, digital papers are allowed and allowance is made for a number of issues. We know in the Irish experience that the offer of a scribe and extended time do not suit everybody. For many children who are sitting examinations, unless they have a scribe to explain the pictures, they are told not to use them. That places them at a clear disadvantage. There are a couple of simple things that we could do to remedy the situation. The Minister stated that the Department will review reasonable accommodations in tandem with reform of the leaving certificate examination in general. The Department could review this earlier. I have emphasised to the State Examinations Board that a review is urgent. The Department’s stance is clearly contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
I do not want to misrepresent the State Examinations Board, but when I met its representatives, I did not feel a sense of urgency about reviewing reasonable accommodations. I am sorry to be bearer of bad new but we all know that we have some of the lowest levels of full-time employment for people with disabilities in this country. Not allowing digital assistance in State examinations is part of that as it acts as a barrier to third level education. I did not get a sense that the State Examinations Board had any immediate impetus to conduct a review. I talked to the State Examinations Board about allowing PDF versions of examination papers and asked if it had the capacity to make PDFs digitally available during State examinations. I was told that it would not, which puts us into the territory of seeking a tender. As we all know, the tender process takes longer. I am not being flippant when I say that I have staff in my office who can make a PDF document that is secure and would meet the security requirements of the commission.
Let me clearly outline my three suggestions for the Department. The first is to instruct the State Examinations Commission to undertake a review of the list of reasonable accommodations. I accept that would be a longer project. The second would be to allow in that process some kind of a forum and consultation between parents and relevant educators. My experience of visiting teachers has been excellent because they know exactly what they are doing. I know that people within a Department do not always feel that they can speak up, but visiting teachers are the experts. I strongly believe that we can learn from them. It is they who should be asked about reasonable accommodations.
The third suggestion is that we should just get on with introducing the use of PDF documents. I suggest that we provide this option to the leaving certificate students who will participate in the next round of examinations. I cannot emphasise enough how great a difference this initiative would make to the very small number of students affected. Their lives would be transformed by being able to access State examinations.
Minister Foley: I cannot disagree with any of the points made by the Deputy. We have made enormous strides in terms of technology over a long period but particularly in the last couple of years. We have seen the enormous benefits. If we are to follow through and build on that, we need to take the next step. The State Examinations Commission is charged with conducting examinations and has ultimate responsibility for them.
The Deputy made a very clear point.
The rates review is linked with senior cycle reform. It is to give maximum opportunity to students to be the best they can be in any situation, most notably in examinations. I ask the Deputy to leave it with me. I will take this with me and see where the scope and potential lie. I do not want to lead the Deputy astray and say it is within my gift because it is not entirely, and it is within the State Examinations Commission. However, it is a fair point that is being raised. Other points have been made regarding the accessibility of examination papers. On the points that have been raised with me in that regard, the commission has a duty to protect the examinations, but there is always a way.
Neasa Hourigan TD: I completely accept the need to protect the examinations. Nobody wants to have to resit an examination. However, it would be meaningful for them to hear from the Minister that there is a concern around the human rights issues. My views are shared by Senator Erin McGreehan, who wanted to be here tonight, and Senator Martin Conway. We are like mini-coalition on this issue. We are very concerned about what this means for students.
Minister Foley: To be fair, they have raised that with me previously, which I acknowledge.