Why exam season is a nightmare for students with visual impairments and scribes

Despite technological advances, students with visual impairment and other disabilities still have to rely on scribes to write exams for them, and often, the onus is on them to find one.
Scribe writing exam
Scribe writing exam
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Manoj (name changed), a Class 10 student at a school for the blind in Telangana, found himself in a tough spot when his teachers had asked him and other students with visual impairments to find a scribe to write exams for them. Usually, the school provides scribes for such students, but this year, due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the faculty asked the students to locate their own scribes as a backup plan.

“We are usually provided with students from a lower class as scribes to write exams for us while we dictate the answers. This year, the teachers said that there is no certainty that the scribes they have assigned will be able to write the exam for us due to the COVID-19 scare. Although we asked some Class 9 students to scribe for us, their parents were refusing to let them do so,” said Manoj.

Fortunately, the Telangana government cancelled all Class 10 state board or the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams. But the exam season has once again put the spotlight on the perpetual quandary of students with visual impairment, cerebral palsy, locomotor impairments and multiple disabilities across educational institutions every year — the onus of finding a scribe. It also brings into focus why many refuse or back out from volunteering to scribe for such students.

According to students, scribes and disability rights activists who spoke to TNM, a majority of the educational institutions in India do not maintain a standard system or bank of scribes. As a result, students have to depend on non-government organisations (NGOs), or in some cases, scramble to rope in relatives or close friends to write exams for them.

“Because of the discrimination that leads to social isolation, people with disabilities, in general, lack the social capital to easily find people who would be good scribes. So they rely on available resources from their own circles,” said Amba Salelkar, a lawyer in Chennai.

In many cases, with only a few minutes left for the exam to commence, the scribe may not turn up or will reach late. “In such instances, we have had to ask students to literally go to the road and ask someone to write the exam for them, or the teachers will scramble to find a student from the institution itself to write the exam. Sometimes, they have to miss the exam,” said Akshata DC, scribe coordinator who volunteers at a Bengaluru-based NGO called Amrutha Bindu Charitable Trust.

Mohammad Altaf, a native of Hyderabad, has been relying on NGOs for scribes since he moved to Bengaluru for his degree programme. “Since I am located in an urban area, I have access to such NGOs. But this is not the case for students in rural areas and small towns where such organisations do not function. Some, as a result, will not be able to write their exams,” said the second-year Bachelors of Art (BA) student.

In its guidelines, the Centre said, as far as possible, alternative mode of taking the exam should be provided; for example, using Braille, computer, large text, E-Text. However, many experts pointed out that there is no such system where students can write the exam without depending on a scribe.

“They can take the exam independently using computers but that system is not practised much in Karnataka or other parts of India. Besides, most students are not confident about writing independently,” said Akshata.

The scribe-student rapport

A comfortable rapport or communication between the student with visual impairment and the scribe is a deciding factor in this problem. This rapport is often strained by the system followed by educational institutions.

According to experts, the earlier guidelines by state governments said that the scribes should be a grade lower than the candidate. This means that only a Class 9 or Class 8 student can write the exam for a Class 10 student with a visual impairment.

These guidelines were amended in 2013 by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment Department of Disability Affairs. “Criteria like education qualification, marks scored, age or other such restrictions for the scribe should not be fixed,” it read. This means, anybody, including working professionals and students of the same batch, can scribe for such students. 

Despite the amended guidelines, schools and colleges are either unaware of this or do not follow them, which compounds matters for students with visual impairment as well as the scribes.

For example, in guidelines for scribes issued by a University in Karnataka, it said: “The scribe should have academic qualification at least one step below that of the candidate, can be from any academic discipline and should have a minimum qualification of matriculation.”

The specification of a different stream, irrespective of the educational qualification, by some institutions furthers the conundrum the two candidates face. 

As the student dictates the answers, the scribe has to write it down on the answer sheets. These answers are often strung with formulae, jargons, graphs and diagrams. The lack of knowledge of these specifics can frustrate both the scribe and the student.

This discourages many scribes from giving another attempt. Telangana-based Satvika Kamuni, for instance, who helps her friends with visual impairment find a scribe, once decided to scribe. And that was her first and last attempt, as of now, she said.

“I am from a science background and had to write a Mathematics paper for a pre-board Class 10 student. While I could write the theory part, I was confounded when the student told me about a box and some equations, which I learnt in school,” said Satvika, a fourth-year BSc (Bachelors of Science) student. “I was trying hard to comprehend what he was saying. Since it was a pre-board exam, the invigilator was not strict. So I had to take help from a scribe near our desk.”

Akshata said that the Trust whom she volunteers for once gave a representation to the Karnataka Pre-University Education Board raising this concern, that some subjects require scribes from the same academic background. “We have not received a response yet. But in some cases, we ask the scribe not to reveal their education qualification if a need arises. It is an open secret,” she said.

Apart from the obstacles over the lack of clarity on the guidelines, there are other factors, too, that affect the experience for the scribe and the student.   

For instance, the student not preparing enough deters the scribes.

“Some students with visual impairment might start learning the subject a few weeks or days prior to the exam, asking for video notes at the last minute. They are not prepared for the exam. They sit silent and ask the scribes to write the answers. As a result, the scribes get frustrated. So some ask us to assign students who are academically good or are well prepared. They don’t want to waste their time, including writing and travelling,” Akshata. 

“Some try to take advantage, they will depend on us to write the correct answer. As a scribe, it is not our duty to answer for someone else,” said Pushpa Preeya, a popular scribe based in Bengaluru, who has been scribing for the last 12 years.

Students with visual impairment, on the other hand, feel that their scribes are slow in writing, which, in turn, affects their marks. “Scribes should be fast in writing. Many are used to typing and they eventually become slow in writing,” said Mohammed Altaf, a second-year BA (Bachelor of Art) student in History and Political Science.

Recounting his second-semester exam, he said, “History paper requires short answers and my scribe was able to complete it in time. Political Science paper has five-mark and 10-mark questions that require answers that run up to five to six pages. Since my scribe was slow in writing, I had to leave questions worth 30 marks.”

A sensitised, incentivised, inclusive approach

Nila Balaji, a Class 12 student in Karnataka, wrote a government exam for a student with visual impairment. Like many other scribes, she, too, faced difficulty in reading the options for the multiple-choice questions. They could not complete the exam.

“Currently, students are given 20 minutes extra per hour if they use the service of a scribe. This compensatory time should be extended further as it is difficult to dictate the question and make the student understand it,” she suggested.

The Class 12 student also noted that the question papers should be designed understanding the needs of students with visual impairment, locomotor disability or cerebral palsy; or train such students using state-of-the-art infrastructure or facilities to help them better.

Incentivising the scribe will go a long way in ensuring students have access to them. “Some schools say the students should pay the scribe, at least the travel expense, with no help from the school or government,” pointed out Pushpa. “Although I have to take almost three buses to reach the exam centre, I do not take any money from the students. If I am getting late, I only ask professionals (with disabilities) who are taking a government examination to arrange a taxi,” she said.

Akshata recommended that colleges remunerate the student and then claim reimbursement from the government.

According to C Govindakrishnan, founder of Nethrodaya, an organisation for persons with visual and physical impairment in Chennai, the state government pays Rs 500 (college exam) and Rs 350 (school exam) respectively, if conducted by government institutions.

“In 2015, the Madras High Court had said that scribes should be appointed as per the government guidelines. This not only helps scribes, but also ensures that qualified persons come forward to write the exam, as it is important for the scribe to understand what they are writing,” Govindakrishnan told TNM.

While Class 10 and Class 12 board exam students have to intimate the school about their scribes one week prior to the exams, the colleges and universities have the option of notifying them a day in advance. In some cases, students meet or speak to their scribes a day before the exam. In other instances, they meet each other on the day of the same exam. The scribe gets no orientation session on the subject.

“If they make spelling errors or syntax errors, the discredit goes to the candidate. The spelling of a word and its pronunciation while dictation can be different. A word bank to familiarise them with terms being used in the exam is important,” suggested advocate Amba, who is also a fellow at the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy, Chennai.

Shifting to online examinations is a great way to universally design the system, especially for the inclusion of people with visual impairments and other disabilities, too, pointed out Amba.

Many scribes, coordinators and activists have noted that a lot of support for students with disabilities are given grudgingly and is seen as doing some kind of charity, and not being looked on as a right of the student.

“Many do not get time off from work or from studies, and scribing becomes an addition to their regular workloads,” said Amba, adding, “The department of education should build a database of people willing to be scribes in a particular geographical area, to do away with the rule that scribes should be less qualified than the student.”

Pushpa, who has scribed over 800 times for students with various disabilities, including those who are badly injured in accidents, highlighted four crucial qualities a scribe should have: Confidence, patience, good writing skills and listening skills. “Ultimately, these students want our help, and some just want to pass the exam,” she said. 

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