Jumping Through Hoops – Reasonable Adjustments for Exams

The DRC (Disability Rights Commission) are currently supporting a legal case brought about by a student, who claims that she was discriminated against when taking an online exam for a professional qualification.  The complaints include one about unreasonable demands for evidence of disability, and one about requests for reasonable accommodations.

Hoop 1: Prove Your Disability

The SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disability Act) states that educational institutions must make reasonable adjustments for disabled students in order to avoid substantial disadvantage.  However, in order for those reasonable adjustments to be made in the exam room, many institutions need actual evidence of disability. For those students who are known to their educational institution, evidence may not necessarily mean a medical certificate, as a tutor’s or other adviser’s statement may be enough. 

However, in the legal case mentioned above, the professional body running the assessment had not actually met the student as most of her studies were completed electronically.  So in this case, actual medical proof was their only recourse to evidence of disability, before any special accommodations could be made.  Including a suite of preferences as part of the test software could have helped with some of the accommodations the student required and may even have avoided the need for the provision of evidence of her disability.

Hoop 2: Take the Test the Hard Way

In the legal case mentioned above, the student was not allowed to take her own laptop into the exam room nor was she allowed to use a screen reader to access the test, because the professional body felt that installation of software from outside their test suite could put the security of their test at risk.

In this case, both parties’ requests could be considered as reasonable – the student’s request for additional software in order to take the test and the testing body’s refusal on the grounds of security.  Security issues around assessment are a common fear.  If an exam body wants to keep the quality of its qualifications high, then security will be paramount.  But where does this leave the student who needs additional software in order to access the test?  In this case, the student was offered the services of a reader and extra time – it was not an ideal solution for her, but was one with which the testing body was happy.  This is probably not an isolated incident – there are no doubt many conflicts between what the student really needs to take an online test and with what the testing body feels comfortable about allowing the student to use.  Compromises are made, but perhaps it is the student who always ends up with the worst deal.

Levelling the Playing Field

So would it be worthwhile for test centres (and maybe other online test providers) to provide generic accommodations?  Offering a text reader or screen magnification software as part of the test software suite could remove the need for some students to provide evidence of their disability and could reduce the worry for exam bodies about compromising security. 

Screen readers, for example, are a common type of assistive technology and come in various shapes and sizes.  Although it would be impossible to provide screen readers to suit everyone’s needs, it might be possible to provide one cut-down or authoritative version simply to allow students to access online assessments, as long as the student was allowed to practise using the technology well in advance.  This could keep costs down and possibly improve a student’s interaction with the test software, if practice runs have been made available.

Availability of such technology would also depend on the type of test being undertaken but for online exams, where reading the questions aloud did not defeat the actual purpose of the question, providing access to even one type of assistive technology could go a long way to including rather than excluding people.  Of course, the questions would also need to be screen reader-friendly and alternatives to questions containing graphs or images may need to be offered, but providing accessible and/or alternative questions may benefit all students.

I’m not saying that one size should fit all.  Many disabled students will still need to use their own particular type of technology but including some common types of assistive technology in a test software suite could help level the playing field.  In an ideal world, students would be able to set their own preferences, use their own software and even have assessments based on their particular learning styles. 

Above all, it is imperative that exam bodies and educational institutions who provide online tests are clear about what is actually being tested (is it the student’s ability to interact with the test software or their knowledge and understanding of a particular subject?) and to ensure that any assessment clearly reflects that goal in a user-friendly and supportive manner.  After all, assessment in any form is usually stressful enough without having to jump through extra hoops.

Should alt text be used to paint a thousand words?

We’ve all been told that alt text is an essential part of web accessibility, but how much detail do we actually need to include and who should do it?

There’s been some discussion over on the DC-Accessibility JISCMail Discussion List (February 2007, “Not Accessible or Adaptable”) about a lot of issues, including whether alt text should always be added to an image. One contributor to the discussion gave a link to a slideshow of dance photographs, where:

“the author refused to label the images with text… his argument being that the photographers images capture and demonstrate an emotional experience, and that whilst text can perform the same expression, he’s not the person to annotate them.”

The photographs in question are various stills from dance rehearsals and performances.  There is no accompanying text of any kind, but most people would probably recognise that the people in the photos were involved in some sort of dance medium from the clothes being worn, the environment, and from the positions of the bodies.  However, unless one knows the language of dance or the context in which the dance is being performed, the photos may have no further meaning – and could therefore be inaccessible to some people.

This actually brings up several issues:

1. How can one describe an image that expresses emotion or abstract concepts?

2.  If such concepts can be described, who should be responsible (and have the capability) for doing so?

3.  Where does alt text fit into all this?

1. Describing Emotion and Abstract Concepts

So is it possible to extract emotional and abstract meanings and describe them for people who do not have a concept or understanding of such areas?  The Dayton Art Institute Access Art Website has attempted to do so.  For each artwork on the Access Art website, there is an image, a section on the artwork in context, comments by the Art Director (including an audio commentary) and a description of the artwork. Each section is no more than a couple of paragraphs. For example, the description of Frishmuth’s “Joy of the Waters” has attempted to put across abstract concepts such as the mood of the statue:

“The girl’s springing, energetic step, joyful expression, and animated hair create an exuberant mood and suggest that she may be a water sprite.” (Marianne Richter, Dayton Art Institute)

This helps make the artwork become more accessible for visually impaired people and for people who do not know the language of art. 

2. Responsibility for Describing Images

The people best qualified to describe a visual resource are probably the people who have decided it should be included in the first place.  For example, someone with archaeological experience is probably best placed to describe an image of a stone tool, whilst a geography tutor may be the most suitable person to describe a meteorological image from a satellite put onto the university’s VLE (Virtual Learning Environment).

The descriptions used will also differ depending on the image’s intended audience.  A museum generally has a wide public audience with many different levels of understanding and access requirements, whilst a Geography department may only have a small number of students at a fairly high level of understanding. 

So, unless the photographer in the quote above, is also versed in the language of dance, he is unlikely to be able to describe the dance photos he has taken.  Even if he were, he would also need to be aware of the level at which they needed to be pitched in terms of language, description, and audience. 

3. Use of alt Text

So where does alt text fit into all this?  The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) recommends providing:

“…a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”,  or in element content)… For complex content (e.g., a chart) where the “alt” text does not provide a complete text equivalent, provide an additional description using, for example, “longdesc” with IMG or FRAME, a link inside an OBJECT element, or a description link.”

Therefore, alt text should be used for every image (even empty alt text should be used for spacers and decorative images), but it should only provide a brief text description of the image – the Guidelines on ALT Texts in IMG Elements recommends no more than 50 characters.  Longer descriptions of an image, such as those describing complex images, emotions, or abstract concepts, should not be included as alt text, but should either be attached as a separate link (perhaps using the longdesc or d-link elements) or added next to the image. 

Alt text can also be different for different audiences and purposes (see WebAIM’s Communicating the Purpose of the Graphic) and does not necessarily need to be completed by experts.  However, although the photos of the dancers should have had alt text, they may well have needed someone with a knowledge of dance to add it.  Basic alt text, such as “photo of dance students” could have been added by anyone but would there be any benefit to seeing roughly the same alt text added to over 80 images?  A choreographer would be capable of adding more informative alt text, such as stating the dance step or intention, e.g. “photo of a dancer in fifth position”, particularly where the intended audience was other dancers or dance students. 

Alt text is a requirement under the WCAG guidelines, but it shouldn’t be used to describe an image in a thousand words – these have to be written elsewhere.