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equalitytalk.org.uk

How Equality Act 2010 applies to adult communication impairments in Britain

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Exams

The Equality Act 2010 covers education and exams. This page focusses on exams, for those over 18. A-levels are not covered here, though they are also within the Equality Act. To be protected by the Act, the person usually needs to have a 'disability' as defined.

Key points

  • Equality Act rules apply to exams.
  • Reasonable adjustments may be required to the method of assessing competence standards.
  • What is being assessed (the competence standards) may be unlawful if it cannot be objectively justified.

Introduction

Assessments are sometimes designed in a way which unnecessarily disadvantages people with a communication disability. A university or college should be happy to discuss with you what support you need. A disabled student might initially discuss concerns with the university's Disability Office, or with their personal tutor.

However, there are also Equality Act rules to help address exam issues faced by disabled students. These may help where there is disagreement on what should be allowed.

Legal rules

The Equality Act can require reasonable adjustments to be made to exams. This might include for example extra time, or a written rather than oral test (or vice versa).

What adjustments are possible may be restricted by what is being tested. For example a written test would not be appropriate if oral skills are being tested. However what is being tested is often itself subject to the Equality Act. The 'competence standards' being tested may need to be "objectively justified".

More on the legal rules: Exams: legal rules.

Examples

The following are some examples of how assessments might be altered. For some more examples, see Exams: legal rules. We don't distinguish below between 'reasonable adjustments' and the rules on competence standards, as discussed on that page. Different students will find different adjustments helpful - it is sensible for this to be discussed with the student.

Extra time

This will often be an appropriate adjustment in the case of communication disabilities, though it will not always be sufficient.

From draft non-statutory Code of Practice: extra time for oral exercise
A college sets applicants for a higher level language course a short oral exercise. A person with a speech impairment is given additional time to complete the exercise. This is a reasonable adjustment for the university to make.
Para 10.24, Consultation draft Code of Practice on Higher and Further Education. When finalised, the code is likely to be issued as a non-statutory code.

Example: extra time to understand and write
A student with specific language impairment (SLI) is given extra time in a written exam to understand questions and write answers.

Case: multiple sclerosis
The Court of Appeal upheld a decision that sufficient reasonable adjustments had been made for a student with multiple sclerosis taking a professional law exam. The adjustments made included extra time, though not as much as the student wanted. A technical issue on whether the reasonable adjustment duty applied to the time limit on the facts did not have to be decided, as sufficient adjustments had been made anyway.
Burke v College of Law and Solicitors Regulation Authority (link to stammeringlaw.org.uk)

Case (in United States): medical exam
A medical student in a clinical skills examination was allowed use of a text-to-speech device, double time for each patient encounter, and replacement of the telephone patient encounters with in-person encounters.
Hartman v National Board of Medical Examiners (link to stammeringlaw.org.uk)

The adjustment should be appropriate for the particular student's needs. An example where to a significant extent this does not seem to have been done:

Case study: initially inappropriate adjustment in medical exam (UK)
Part of an oral examination for a medical doctor involved seeing a number of ‘patients’ (in fact actors), spending a fixed amount of time with each. The doctor has a stammer. He failed the exam three times. For the second two attempts, he was told the examiner would be informed about his stammer.

His speech and language therapist wrote to the exam body recommending he have more time to speak. Instead he was given additional time to read. Accordingly he sat with doctors with dyslexia. (In fact his issue was with speech, not reading). He failed the exam again on the fourth attempt.

His speech therapist again wrote to the exam body in detail about his stammering, advising that he have more time to speak. After further discussion, the exam body advised that (1) he should still do his exam with additional reading time, and (2) the examiner would be informed about his stammer and how it affects him, and would be asked to take account of the stammer and not mark him down if his performance was affected by the stammer. He passed his exam on the fifth attempt. He had been told that if he failed again, additional speaking time would be arranged for the sixth attempt.

Different format, and use of technology

An oral exam might be done in writing, or vice versa. Also technological aids to communication might be used, or a helper. Written material may need to be made accessible.

Case: multiple sclerosis
Adjustments allowed for a professional law exam included an amanuensis (to write and/or act as a reader), use of a computer, rest periods, breaking exams into smaller segments, and exam questions and any advance reading being provided on cream coloured paper.
Burke v College of Law and Solicitors Regulation Authority (link to stammeringlaw.org.uk)

However adjustments will depend on what is (justifiably) being tested. For example, oral language skill cannot be tested in writing:

From previous Statutory Code of Practice
An oral examination for a person training to be a Russian interpreter cannot be done in an alternative way, e.g. as a written examination, because the examination is to ascertain whether someone can speak Russian.
2007 Revised Code of Practice: Trade Organisations, Qualifications Bodies and General Qualifications Bodies. Para. 8.31. This relates to older legislation, but is still a useful example.

Presentations

In a presentation, one might allow extra or less time for the presentation, and consider removing time pressures by specifying the general number of words. Allowing (and encouraging) use of audiovisual aids may help. So may a group rather than individual presentation, and/or presenting to a smaller audience. Possible adjustments for presentations are discussed in the 'Stammering' links below (British Stammering Association and de Montfort University websites).

Assessment criteria

Example
It may well be appropriate to remove 'fluency' or 'clarity of speech' from assessment criteria. These might be replaced with the concept of 'communication' (if justified) encouraging assessment of wider skills of interaction.
(There is more on assessment criteria in the 'Stammering' links below.)

Links on adjustments in exams

Specific language impairment

Stammering