"This system potentially punishes anyone who doesn’t have very neat, legible handwriting"Flickr, Christopher Stephen

We’ve now crossed the division of Lent term. This is clear to me not only because 13th February was the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) deadline for submitting access requests for this year’s exams, but also because of the exhaustion and sleep deprivation that is slowly seeping into my brain, diminishing my sense of who I am, what I’m doing, and what day it is…

I comfortably satisfied the requirements for using a laptop at school level. The Joint Council for Qualifications, in charge of access requirements for national exams, allows laptop use if it is your ‘normal way of working’. They are preoccupied with enabling you, quite literally, to access your exams, and I clearly needed that access arrangement; without a laptop my writing would look like a child writing hieroglyphics while sat on a cement mixer.

However, at Cambridge our access system is more rigorous, and arrangements are in line with equality legislation, the 2010 Equality Act. If you have a disability the University needs to put in ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that you are not disadvantaged, but you first have to meet this requirement. Therefore, an occupational therapist or educational psychologist has to recommend that you use a word processor, following a diagnosis.

This lengthy process requires a visit to the DRC for an initial screening, and, if they recommend that you go forward to get an educational assessment, you have to visit your doctor, and then book a final assessment. The assessment with an educational psychologist takes three hours, and costs £400. Throughout the process of arranging this, I was continually hearing the same thing: in this day and age, the fact that getting laptop access is so difficult feels ridiculous. Doesn’t this just lead us to judge people on the quality of their handwriting, rather than on the quality of their ideas?

There seems to be a general feeling that allowing laptop use for all would be a bit like opening Pandora’s Box. One of the main fears includes the worry that people using word processors would write more, and therefore be at an advantage and gain higher marks.

As luck would have it, Helen Duncan, who works as a Disability Adviser at the DRC, has recently produced a research project touching on many of these issues entitled ‘Equality or Advantage? The effect of receiving access arrangements in university exams on students with specific learning disabilities’, and I was given the chance to speak to her about some of her work.

Helen Duncan undertook the rather daunting task of counting the words of 137 exam scripts from Summer 2014 exams, including 31 Specific Learning Disabilities (SpLD) students with 25 per cent extra time, 36 SpLD students using word processors, and 70 peers with no learning difficulties, working under normal conditions. These papers were from English, History and Law exams. One of her most interesting findings was that there was a 1 per cent difference in marks between candidates with the highest word count, against those with the lowest word count.

Moreover, the average word count for students with no access arrangements or learning difficulties gaining a First was 3,109 words, whilst the average word count for a 2:1 was 3,499 words; in the SpLD group the average word count for a First was 2,939 words, whilst the average for a 2:1 was 3,097 words. Her results seem to correlate with an idea that many of us are familiar with: quantity isn’t necessarily quality.

In response, Helen Duncan said: “The word processors will help to level the playing field [for those with SpLDs], but you can’t suddenly become a First if you’re not. It’s not an advantage to someone who doesn’t need the facilities… Given that the awarding of exam arrangements is contentious and identifies a particular group as ‘other’, one recommendation would be that assessment processes using the principle of Universal Design are considered, which could, potentially, include laptops in exams as a standard provision.”

Our current exam system feels undeniably outdated; students produce a majority of their work every week using word processors, and frequently use technology as a way of learning. However, when it comes to exams, which for a subject like English can include three hours of intensive writing, students are forced to handwrite.

This system potentially punishes anyone who doesn’t have very neat, legible handwriting, and even slightly illegible handwriting can seriously detract from the flow of an essay. It is easy to see why Cambridge might be a long way from allowing everyone laptop access for exams. It is unclear how laptops might impact each different subjects, such as STEM subjects, and some exams might be unsuitable for laptop use. More importantly, the theoretical idea of allowing this access is perhaps at odds with the practicality of executing it.

The difficulty of sourcing a sufficient number of word processors, and ensuring that there were enough power supplies, and enough room for people to be able to type without making exam halls too loud, is perhaps the main barrier to these ideas becoming a reality in the near future.

However, the fact that students are losing access arrangements that they had at school, and being forced to medicalise handwriting issues, is something we need to think about changing in the future.

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