Scribes, computers or oral examinations? This question is perplexing visually challenged students all over India as they prepare for their upcoming college exams. Vaijayanti Savant Tonpe seeks the right answers
It is that time of the year again. And students are busy preparing for their examinations. In the midst of the usual, often nerve-wracking activities associated with these preparations, the visually challenged student has yet another dilemma: should he or she opt for a scribe, use a computer or take the exams orally? Which mode will help to secure better marks and hence a better future?
Suman Rath, a first year English Honours student of St Stephen's College, is aware that Delhi University, according to a University Grants Commission (UGC) directive, allows visually challenged students to use computers. "But I would still prefer to use a writer or scribe," says Rath.
This hesitancy to switch to a modern alternative has more to do with a lack of familiarity rather than a lack of availability or obsolete rules that do not allow it. However, the more trusted alternative of scribes might not be that reliable after all.
For one, feels Rath, the incentives for scribes are very low. Then, the rule that scribes must be one level below and from a different stream means that the scribes, too, would be busy preparing for their own exams. Also, scribes often back out at the last minute, dealing a huge psychological blow to the visually challenged student just before the exam. "It is difficult to arrange another scribe at such short notice," explains Rath. He adds, "As a first year student, my scribe would be from Class XII and no way can I expect a Class XII student to write as fast or as much as I would for my English Honours papers. Further, the scribe's spellings may not be as good and I would have to spell several words out, causing delays."
Elaborates Kanchan Pamnani of Access India, who as an advocate and solicitor has very recently seen this particular stipulation being overruled in the Bombay High Court: "The earlier ruling of scribes being a level below and also the even more limiting one that a scribe must not have above 50 per cent marks as the average have been done away with in Maharashtra and that is reason enough to rejoice. If a visually challenged student arms him/herself with awareness, he/she will find there is a lot more they can have and achieve." Pamnani is visually challenged and is hence fully aware of this problem.
"Not having vision for me in Delhi is like not having a car of my own in New York," says Jagdish Chander, a lecturer in Political Science in Hindu College. "Life would be better but it does not come to a standstill. If I get adequate access to source materials throughout the year and I prepare myself well for the exams, all I need is a good scribe who can quickly grasp what I'm saying and write it down as I dictate and
then the exams are as fair for me as for anyone else."
A sentiment echoed by Dr Manoj Kumar, Chief Commissioner, Disabilities: "Exams for visually challenged are fair, given the concession of time that they already have. No special allowances need to be made over and above that because in grasping power and preparation they are second to none."
"Three aspects need to be looked at closely and made nationally applicable," observes Chander. "The age/level barrier has to go and invigilators have to be made more responsible. Or policies should be re-thought and the alternative of taking the exams orally should be offered to visually challenged students."
Currently, every state government has its own ruling on the extra time per hour allowed for a visually challenged student as well as the age level for the scribe.
"Rethinking examination policy for the visually challenged [as in oral exams] would require major initiatives and thought processes on several levels," believes Professor Sudesh Mukhopadhyay from the Department of Inclusive Education and Department of Comparative Education and International Cooperation at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). "It is not one particular disability in isolation that we have to think about while policy planning," she continues, "but even if we were to think of oral exams for the visually challenged, several factors would have to be taken into consideration. Are all visually challenged students comfortable with taking their exams orally? Are some of them self-conscious about pronunciation? Can they talk reasonably well, as in appearing for an exam for three long or more hours? What subjects lend themselves to oral exams anyway? How can you formulate and reformulate rules for exams if the year-long preparations do not match up to the modes and methods demanded, provided or available at the end of the year at exam time?"
Dr Sam Taraporevala, Reader, Sociology, has been teaching at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, for the last 18 years. He draws attention to the resource centre run by the college.
The Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) works towards creating an enabling environment to facilitate the development of an inclusive society both at the micro as well as the macro levels, thereby providing equal opportunities for holistic growth for the visually challenged. It is at the school level itself that major changes are called for-the concept of special schools has to be done away with so that children with special abilities can be integrated into normal schools.
Obviously the movement is yet to pick up momentum but the benefits of schooling in a normal school are more than clear in those students who have had the opportunity.
The most vociferous advocate of this, quite literally, is Pamnani: "I went to a normal school and anyway at that time I was not totally sightless, I just had thick glasses. It was one of my teachers who created an awareness about opportunities and options for visually challenged persons in the minds of my parents so that I could carry on with my education."
Dr Taraporevala feels that the Bombay High Court ruling in favour of the visually challenged is a step in the right direction and should, in fact, be emulated countrywide.
Agrees Amiyo Biswas who is associated with the Blind Persons Association in Kolkata. The Association runs several schools for sightless people all over West Bengal, has a Braille press and two libraries.
In West Bengal, the rule of the scribe being a level or two below still applies and Biswas laments the fact that the scribes are usually Class XII students who lack the maturity required to write a college-level paper. Scribes assigned are also generally from the humanities stream and that becomes a major obstacle for a visually impaired student taking a science exam.
"The biggest drawback for visually impaired students taking exams in some centres here," says Biswas, "is that they are not provided proper places at the exam centre. As they dictate their answers they are at risk of disturbing other candidates, so instead of secluding them in a separate room, they are often placed in verandas or corridors with all the attendant nuisances and disturbances attached."
"If this is really happening," asserts Dr Kumar, "then they certainly should bring it to the notice of the local Commissioner, Disabilities, or to us. These things are not at all hard to change, but if they are not pointed out how is one to take relevant action?" He follows it up with an example: "Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, a job per family is assured to every villager. But, if the head of the family does not mention a disabled person in his family data as employable, how on earth can anybody walk into his house and compel him to send the person out to take up a job that could be his/hers?"
It is desirable that uniform rules are made with regard to extra time per hour for examinations for visually challenged students all over the country. The decision should not be left to the discretion of the state.
The choice of using a computer for a visually impaired student should be a mandatory one. And, following Maharashtra's lead, the relaxation in the age/level prescribed for a scribe as well as the 50 per cent marks or below stipulation should also be waived across the country.
There is need to rethink, reinvent and remodel. Pamnani rightly points out that there are areas that may remain grey for a while for visually impaired students. Taking a maths paper, for instance, still poses a major hurdle. That is also the reason why very few visually challenged students take up mathematics.
"Anything with a graph is difficult for a visually challenged person to handle," says Hemant Gupta, a third year student at St Stephen's College. "At university level we have a question of up to 60 marks on maps-how on earth am I to tell my scribe where Delhi is on a map? No way has been found of overcoming this hurdle and often students like me stand to lose because of this."
Both Rath and Gupta are aware that the option of taking their exams on computers with printouts is available to them. Course materials and lessons are also easily available, but as of now they definitely prefer a scribe to write their papers-at least till they enrol for post graduation, by which time they hope to improve their typing speed.
But Rath scoffs at the idea of oral exams. "One thousand words minimum per question and almost 10 questions to answer! I am not an orator, it's just not possible!"
All students are aware of the options available to them. The results seem promising-with almost every individual and agency pledging to do all they can within their means to make examinations for the visually challenged student better and easier.
Yet more needs to be done. A change in attitudes, acceptance and awareness levels is imperative. Segregation has to be shunned in favour of integration, right from the grassroots level.
Or else how will we ever get to see the difference?