How Technology Is Helping Visually Impaired People Take Exams Independently

In the Digital India of today, there is a need to re-look at the modes of assessment for blind and visually impaired students.

Do you remember playing ‘Chinese Whispers’ as kids? Whispering words and phrases down a chain of friends, and ending up in giggles at the distorted line of communication!

For those who are not familiar with the game, one person whispers a phrase into the ear of the next person in line, who then whispers the word to the third in line. When the word reaches the last person in the chain, the phrase is spelled out loud. Usually, the phrase is very different from what was communicated by the first person in the chain. An ideal case of lost in translation!

While the scenario between a scribe and a visually impaired examinee is not quite like Chinese Whispers, often, here too, things tend to get lost in interpretation. There are essentially two points of communication before an answer is put down to paper. There is scope for error at any of these two stages.

First, when the scribe reads out the question to the blind candidate. At this point, any linguistic or accent issues may lead to misunderstanding of the question. The scribe could also wrongly interpret diagrams or symbols in a question.

Second, when the blind candidate dictates the answer to the scribe based on their understanding of the question. The candidate doesn’t really spell out every word, so a scribe may misspell words while putting the answers down, which may result in changed meaning at times.

Diagrams and symbols are difficult to explain orally, so the accuracy of the same depends on the scribe’s comprehension.

In some cases, the scribe may be under-qualified, and in other cases, blind candidates may simply rely on the scribe’s intelligence to write the exam. At times, the blind candidate has clear understanding of the subject, but finds it difficult to articulate to a third person instead of just putting it down himself/herself. There are times when the blind student struggles to find a scribe in the first place, and there are also times when the promised scribe doesn’t turn up on the exam day.

Apart from these challenges that the system of scribe poses to a visually impaired student, the very nature of this mode of assessment screams the word “dependence”. The blind candidates have to “depend” on another person who may or may not be familiar with the subject to write their exam. The blind candidate’s performance in examinations “depends” on how well the scribe managed to comprehend and answer on his/her behalf.

The system of scribes encourages a culture of “dependency” that emerges from a notion of charity towards blind people, where a scribe “volunteers” to write for another. It is built on the premise that blind people are dependents who need to be looked after and provided for.

This is contrary to a more empowering belief that blind people can be independent contributing citizens who are potentially a part of the human resource of the country.

In today’s day and age, when technology is advancing by leaps and bounds to empower people across sections and geographies, why should blind and visually impaired people be left out? There are technological solutions that can be adopted for assessing blind students. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has issued clear guidelines that allow for the usage of computers, Braille, audio recorders, and other assistive technology in lieu of a scribe. Blind students can use computers with the aid of screen-reading software like JAWS and NVDA. This helps them listen to everything that’s displayed on-screen, thus enabling them to independently write their exam.

Even when there is a policy in place that can empower the blind candidate to independently go through the process of examination, schools and universities continue to latch on to scribes. This could be for various reasons. Schools and universities may not be adequately equipped with computers with screen-reading software and other similar infrastructure required by the blind examinee. This could also be because of a general closed-mindedness towards change and new technology.

It could also simply be lack of awareness of the new guidelines issued by the Board.

Most schools start teaching computers to blind students from Class III onward. So, children are familiar with computers from an early age. The only gap that exists is in the application of the subject knowledge. Instead of limiting computers to subject study, schools can encourage blind students to use it as a practical tool to write their exam.

This would eliminate use of a crutch in the form of a scribe, thus making the blind student capable of independently sailing through exams. Several blind students in the past have fought with authorities, exerting their right to use computers to write exams. Kartik Sawhney, currently a student at Stanford University, insisted on writing his exams using computers. Twin sisters Pragya and Prachi, Final Year students at Delhi University’s Miranda House, also fought a battle with the system to use computers instead of a scribe.

Using technology to independently write exams reduces the risk of errors and misinterpretation, and also readies the blind person for employment in a career of his/her choice. Incidentally, there are no scribes at a workplace. Scribe-dependent blind people will likely be unable to cope with the challenges of working alone.

But those who are independent and up-to-date with the use of technology will be able to deliver easily.

‘Digital India’ and ‘Accessible India’ are opportunities for the blind and people with visual impairments to integrate into the mainstream.

Teachers, parents, and authorities should instill an urge for independence in the minds of blind children from an early age. Assistive technology can empower them to become self-reliant. Opting out of the system of scribes can have a lasting impact on the personalities of visually impaired students. It will create a sense of self-belief, equating them with their sighted peers. Their performance will be a direct assessment of their own ability, and not something they can blame a scribe for.

Perceptions and policies need to change in order to empower blind and visually impaired people. Scribes have outlived their time. Schools, colleges, and universities need to promote alternate modes of assessment. This way, blind candidates don’t have to depend on anyone but themselves to score.