After COVID-19, Open Book Exam Emerges as the Latest Challenge for the Blind

By Shabnam Durani

The Delhi University’s (DU) decision to conduct an Open Book Examination (OBE) for those in their final year has created a sense of panic among the blind and visually impaired students. There are approximately 800 students with vision impairment studying in DU, out of which around 350 will appear for their final exams this year.

The lockdown announcement caught many of these students off guard and they rushed home to stay safe amid the coronavirus scare. Those who couldn’t travel back were stuck in their hostels or temporary accommodation without much support. Already facing difficulties at the hands of the pandemic, the varsity’s announcement made things worse.

Coming from a weak socio-economic background, the majority of visually impaired students are struggling with the new online medium of preparation and assessment, as they have limited or no access to devices (such as laptop/computer, smartphone or scanner), internet and study material.

Keshav: prospects cruelly curtailed by the lockdown and the open book examination.

So, what does OBE entail? Students stuck in different parts of the country can download the question paper from a web portal and write or key in their answers within the given timeframe. The answer sheets then need to be uploaded on the website for submission. This requires access to a computer and internet connection, and a scanning device or software if they are writing on paper. Visually impaired students either write their exams taking assistance from a scribe or use computers with screen-reading software.

Keshav, a student of Political Science, is back home in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh). He could not find a scribe given the social distancing guidelines, so he has decided to key in his answers on the laptop. But frequent power cuts and weak connectivity may impact his performance. Keshav is also concerned about the screen reader accessibility of the DU portal.

He said, ‘’Ideally I would have liked to take a scribe for final semester as it is critical for my future prospects, but finding a scribe amidst the crisis is a challenge and a health risk one has to take. Owing to the circumstances, I will have to make do with whatever little I can do myself.”

Rajni, from Delhi, recently took her foreign language exam and got stuck at the uploading stage because neither she nor her scribe had access to a scanner. “I took my neighbour’s help at the last minute to scan and submit my answer sheets.” All this had to be done within the five hours allotted to blind students to complete their exam.

It is not just the examination which appears to be a challenging task; even the preparation has been difficult. Visually impaired students have not had easy access to study material or online lessons. Many have even been forced to give the exams a miss.

Yogender Singh: hemmed in from all sides.

Hailing from Bihar, Chandan Ranjan stays in a hostel in Gurugram, Haryana. He shared, ‘’Despite repeatedly calling the concerned examination authority’s number in my college, study material was not made available online, nor did the concerned authority attempt to reach out to students like me. We are left unprepared for no fault of ours. I feel we should be promoted on the basis of internal assessments conducted earlier.’’

Yogender Singh is currently with his family in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh). He lost out on most of the online sessions conducted by his college due to poor connectivity on his smartphone. Underprepared and with no access to computers or scribe, he is worried that he might need to travel back to Delhi amid the rising COVID-19 numbers.

“With the lockdown, my persistence in  pursuing education has also come to a standstill. The uncertainty of the situation has left me unsure about my future aspirations,” despaired Yogender.

However, there are some colleges that have made efforts to help their visually impaired students in whatever way they can. Dr BR Alamelu, Enabling Unit Coordinator of Indraprastha Colllege for Women stated, “Our teachers have shared lecture recordings and other relevant study material through platforms such as WhatsApp, google groups and direct mailers. We have also provided assistive devices to supplement their preparation.”

Monu: his college has internet facilities, but mobility is a problem.

But students from different colleges shared varying accounts. Monu Kumar lives in a hostel in South Delhi where the internet connection is unstable. When he reached out to his college officials, they granted him access to the ICT services available on campus.

But mobility remains a challenge for Monu, ‘’Since the lockdown, I have been unable to move around. I am in a situation where I want to take the exams but don’t know how to get there.”

The University claims to have floated e-notifications on various provisions for its visually impaired students.

Dr Vipin Tiwari, Officer on Special Duty-Equal Opportunity Cell, DU, said, “All guidelines pertaining to visually impaired students appearing for the OBE are listed on the university website. In these unusual circumstances we are trying our best to help students who fall under the category of Persons with Disability. We have also advised Common Service Centre (CSC) facilities to have a minimum of two scribes on standby in case students are unable to arrange their own scribes.

“However,” he said, “in rural settings we can’t guarantee screen reading software installation in computers in CSCs. Students can request the CSCs for any such requirement in advance. Students can also participate in the trial runs before the exam date as arranged by the university in CSCs. They can always appear for exams later if they can’t attempt this one.”

But scores of students are unaware and unclear about these provisions. Is it enough to issue and post the guidelines on the university website? Visually impaired students who have worked hard for years are hamstrung today because of a lack of access to adequate infrastructure, study material and scribes.

Given the flawed on-ground implementation of the guidelines issued by Delhi University, will these examinations provide a level playing field to everyone – one that offers an equal chance of succeeding?