Sam Mason (sammason) wrote in disabledstudent,
Sam Mason

Writing disability in exams

I've just sent this to somebody I've met through exam invigilating, who is also part of our University's team which supports disabled students.

Hi [name]

It was great to work with you last week and I hope there'll be another time.

What I didn't have time to ask you is, what's done at our University for people who prefer to write by keyboard than by pen? In fact it turned out that my task on Fri was a 1-2-1 invigilation for a student who was entitled to do his exam on a computer, but I'd been thinking about this anyway. As you can see I type easily but since MS got to my hands, I avoid writing with a pen. So I've started getting work as a Reader in students' exams but working as a Scribe isn't for me. The idea that there are disabilities causing 'writing difficulties' is new to me and I'm not even sure that I'm using the right phrase for it. Is there a University policy on this kind of disability?
Tags: exams, writing or typing
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I can't speak to university policy, but I pretty much demand to be allowed to type all of my exams, papers, assignments, and notes. If it's a short fill in the blank worksheet I can deal, but five pages of fill in the blank isn't necessarily doable on a given day. If they accept it electronically, I would submit it via email or the school's web thing for classes by the end of the period.

However, if typing isn't a standard option for most students, I offer to do it on a program without an editor.

I'm also particular to doing it on my own computer--the keyboard itself makes a HUGE difference to me. In the past I've loaded into a blank profile on my computer that doesn't have my daily documents, and sat where the professor has an easy view of my screen for tests and the knowledge that I consented to allow them to check my file and internet history at any time during the test. However, I don't know that the last part would have gone through the disabilities office very well. They tend to want people to come and schedule some other time and type it in the machines in their lab, which also makes it hard to clarify anything if I have a question for the professor. Then again, I never found the office to be especially helpful since my situation involved having to miss more class than I liked or being ill and not being able to finish things on time, and they couldn't do anything about those.
The phrase I use to describe myself was "handwriting disability," which I had since childhood, long before I had a mobility impairment. My hands are affected in more things than handwriting, but until I started medical training, handwriting was the only thing for which I needed acommodations.

The whole thing was made more sticky for me in school in that I didn't have a diagnosis until after high school and college, and didn't have an accurate one until partway through medical school. So I had to fight and fight to get permission to type exams and it was generally seen as a favor rather than an accommodation. Of course, a favor can be refused. I was OK on an electric typewriter, which I didn't own but which were often available for my use or a computer, which I did own but often wasn't permitted to use because of fear of cheating. This even extended to "take home" exams that were on the honor system. For some reason, it was thought I could "inadvertently" access my notes whereas a handwriting student wouldn't "inadvertently" access their textbook or handwritten notes. I succesfully won that one by all students getting permission to type, which is fine with me. I never wanted anything different, just equal opportunity to demonstrate I knew the material.

Disabilities affecting handwriting seem to fall into two broad categories - learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia which can effect written expression, and a variety of physical disabilities which affect hand strength and function, such as cerebral palsy, arthritis and as you point out, MS. There is also a specific neurological condition called handwriting dystonia, which is pretty rare, and affects motor function specifically at it relates to the act of writing. (This is what I was misdiagnosed with, which is the only reason I'd ever heard of it) There are probably lots of disability types out there with disabilites affecting handwriting, which is why the fight to type has always surprised me so much.
I think I had much less issue with fighting to type because I was born without thumbs and I have no radius in my left hand and centralisation surgery was only partially successful. Even after surgery to give me thumbs during my early school years I couldn't handwrite neatly or without pain and my dad was an IT geek who got hold of an electric typewriter so I was using that in 1986 in the classroom - I had to stand on a stool to reach it - it was HUGE. I was typing on BBC Micros from the age of 4 and by the time I was 7 I could type fast which in 1987 was unusual!

I think it helps that my hands are visibly impaired, I had a lot of surgery and still that wasn't enough - my wrist/elbow are very restricted, I have poss 30% normal motion in my wrist/elbow/hand (no one told me NORMAL people could do SO much with their wrists!) so I end up using shoulder muscles to control handwriting which is bad and explains the pain and immobility I get - I found that out when I was 23 and in ortho rehab.

I was bought a small computer in 1987 by I think a combo of the school and my parents (I realise the privilege of having geeky parents who could find funds if they needed to) and I used that throughout school until it was repaced by the education authority. I had a UK statement of special educational needs and bolshy parents.

The only fight I had was when I was told for English GCSE I might have to handwrite which is what they did to a boy with mild CP (he had tremors) the yr above me - didn't warn him, just took his computer away before his exam. I told my English teacher that if the school or exam board tried that trick on me I'd forfeit the exam and walk straight out to the local paper and raise all merry hell. Funnily enough, they didn't mess with me - the DDA would have been 1 yr old then, I possibly had legal rights!

I do wonder if there are US/UK differences on typing - certainly at higher education level.
Yes, my hands do not look impaired unless I do something silly with them. "Something silly" includes handwriting more than 5 sentences.

I, too, started typing early and also because my parents had resources. I started typing my homework in 1986 when I was 9, which was completely unheard of. I had a doctors letter and we had to do a lot of begging. I also typed a few of my high school exams on a regular - non-electric - typewriter. There were no empty rooms that period and of course I couldn't bring it into the room with my classmates so I actually took a bunch of history tests sitting on the floor in the hallway, pounding away at the keys.

I was so happy when lapotops came into being and I got one for college. It was the first time I could take notes!
My school offers both scribe (human being) and computer as options for students with writing-related disabilities. However, for every student who receives computer as their accommodation it actually says something like "scribe or computer (with instructor's permission)". As an instructor, I inquired about the capabilities of the computer, and was told that the student would be locked out of the internet, but that it did have a built-in spellchecker. After much complaining they did tell me they could find a way to disable to spellchecker, but that was long after the student in question took hir exam and I haven't had another with that specific accommodation since.
"Use of a computer" is fairly standard in UK universities as handwriting is something which is problematic for lots of disabled people especially those with SpLDs (dyslexia et al). Where I work we have central IT support with exam logins so there's no Internet and just the basic MS Word etc and it wipes any data on each reload. I reckon use of a computer is one of the most common exam accommodations. Using specific software is more complicated and there's issues of reliability, IT support, scaleability and sustainability!

I don't think there is specific wording for "handwriting is bad cos of disability", I sometimes loosely define it as "dexterity impairment" which can be a standalone thing e.g after surgery on an arm/hand, post injury or RSI etc etc (we get a lot of students who only have computers for exams and don't need other support) or part of a collection of impairments within a condition which I would say MS is and those students tend to need use of a computer as part of a load of other support. Also some students can't type so you're into scribing territory and from personal experience /that/ is not easy at all.

I have dexterity impairments which means handwriting is both difficult, illegible, painful and bad for me - my physio says I should pretty much not do it at all. I can write maybe 1/2 an A4 page in a large scrawl on a good day and I struggle to read my own writing and I don't get many good days! I certainly can't sustain handwriting for more than a few minutes at a time.

I type at 60+ wpm and have done since 1987 or so when I started using a computer for my schoolwork due to handwriting being painful for me. I did all my GCSEs on my own computer because I used a mac and school didn't have enough decent PCs for me to use - I wiped all the stuff off it and I was in a room on my own.

For A level I was badly affected by peer pressure from my friends complaining "It's not FAIR you get to use a computer in exams!" so I handwrote my modules which was a mistake as I got very low marks. The ****ing exam boards ignored the request to take extra care reading my handwriting and I routinely got 1-2 grades below what I should have (based on mock exams marked harshly and later typed exams). I eventually went back to typing the exams and my grades shot right up. I did sciences so I still had to do some handwriting but it was the occasional piece of maths. I wish someone had told me about mathematical markup LaTeX when I was a child! There were a few cockups at college when the entire network went down and all the IT techs were at a conference - I wasn't stressed, I had chocolate and they bought me coffee and I hadn't lost work cos I'd saved every few minutes religiously to a floppy disk! (I don't miss floppies!).

I also did my uni exams on a computer and that mostly worked ok as I would be in a computer room with a handful of others and an invigilator or two. Sometimes the room would change and I'd be sat there for ages till the invigilator came to find me, but again if the exam started late I didn't care. I used a scribe once for a software engineering exam and it was a total disaster - I didn't know what I was doing, I don't think I could hold the stuff in my head - I was shit at it anyway and I just couldn't communicate verbally what I wanted in writing in the time allowed. I was later told I failed the exam for the module at 38% but had got 75%+ in my coursework for the same module so they moderated me up as it was apparent that there was a disability problem there. These days I'd look for extra extra time, practice with a scribe and a possible 'alternative assessment'.
I probably wouldn't say "dexterity impairment" simply because I don't really have problems with dexterity or fine motor control so long as strength and grip don't come into play.

Hmm. Maybe simply "hand use impairment"? It's as good a catch-all as "mobility impairment"

And I hear you on the scribe thing. People think that dictating (either into a computer with voice recognition or for another person to transcribe) would solve my writing problem. They are especially likely to think this if there is already a system set up for dictators but not for typers. The only way I can dictate is to type out what I want to say first and then read it aloud. I've then spent twice as long and get a product with more errors and typos than what I had in the first place!


May 19 2012, 20:30:20 UTC 4 years ago Edited:  May 19 2012, 20:34:36 UTC

Some v interesting responses here. Thank you, people.

The student for whom I did the 1-2-1 invigilating was quite chatty (after his exam was over, of course) about his need for a keyboard. I'd had no warning that he'd need a computer, hadn't understood why a memory stick was attached to his exam paper, and hadn't understood the scribbled Post-It note that said 'Log On' plus some letters that I eventually learned were the password. After he arrived and told me about his computer accommodation, we realised that the room we were in didn't have a suitable computer so I had to move him to another room. Overall, it was what's technically known as a cock-up.

The blessing was that he didn't have an anxiety disorder. So he took the cock-up in his stride. I, of course, told the supervisors that I hadn't been impressed by the lack of organisation.

Anyway, apart from being glad to learn more about how to be useful to disabled students, I'm intrigued by this topic because I'm getting useful input from you lovely people about how to claim my own crip needs. For a few months now, I've been marking coursework electronically while others do it with a pen. It's clear to me that I'm actually at an advantage here: I can cut-and-paste when I need to make the same comment to several students, I can revise marks tidily if I change my mind, and nobody has to read my handwriting. But I'm not sure that many of my colleagues agree with me about this. It's more like, poor crip, she can't manage.

Then for the last batch of coursework I've been marking for this academic year, it's all submitted by the students to an online Virtual Learning Environment and I've been asked to mark the work in that app. It's great! After learning to use the app, I wish more coursework were done this way. I think it's a v good arrangement for the students as well as for me.
I've had several professors do electronic comments and markups to papers that didn't have any disability that I was aware of. It's nice because it allows for more comments to be made on a page if there isn't really space for it, and there is no issue of puzzling out handwriting.
Really? I'm the only person I know at my workplace who does this. I think I'll start to mention it, whenever the topic comes up, first as a good way of working. How I think more of those who mark students' work should do it electronically. The fact that it happens to be a useful accommodation for some staff is true too, but imo it shouldn't be the main point.

As we know, academics don't generally like change. The top people at Universities might as well try to herd cats. But the person who asked me to use the Virtual Learning Environment for marking in his module is admirable for embracing change. He's semi-retired and a very brainy Silver Surfer.
Good for you for feeding back about the computer room problem for the stude you invigilated. I believe some of my colleagues recommend their students carry a copy of their support agreements outlining exams agreed so if there's a problem they can check on that. I had that happen to me a few times at uni although at work it's mostly departmental or medical centre exams which get that kind of issue - less well organised cos it's not done via main exams people. feeding back lets people know so how the cockup can be worked through to reduce it happening again

I got electronically marked work from tutors in 2000-2004 but I was doing information studies and most of my tutors were very tech literate. We had a pro forma feedback form for the dept with different areas of feedback and space for the overall mark, summary comments and specifics. Some tutors gave us more feedback than others but I liked it because I didn't have to read handwriting - which makes it more accessible to people with dyslexia and so on.

I am surprised people think "poor you" because actually you're going with the way it's more likely to be in the future via VLEs and so on - I bet your students prefer it. Are you marking in some science dept or something which is full of luddites? The chemists were fairly ludditey when I was a (very crap) chemistry student before changing my degree. A friend didn't type any work till her third year and was MOST irked by this requirement even though most of the rest of us had had to type assignments since day 1!

Maybe something you could do is offer some lunch time training and advice on how you mark electronically as CPD? I know how I do my students notes is useful to share as most colleagues still handwrite them, but we're hoping to go completely electronic once we have reliable systems and there are reasons people won't type because our network is shitty and useless so everything takes minutes to load which when you want to note 2 lines isn't worth it for most ppl.
And this is what kills me about the way society constructs disability.

In my mind, a person should be able to type or handwrite (exams, marking papers, medical notes, etc), whatever works better for that individual. Just like handwriters can generally use their left or right hands, even if left-handedness is more unusual. But when disability gets involved, in the mind of many people, "regular" people do things a certain way, and doing it another way becomes different, special, marked, noticed and needing extra permission and arrangements and paperwork. But that's completely due to perceptions and policies and local cultural norms, rather than the actual needs of the person in so many cases. By culture here, I'm including things like individual department or university culture, besides greater questions of ethnic or national culture.

This can go to absurd extremes. For example, in some hospitals, a nurse carries newborn babies across the room to the pediatrician if the baby needs extra help. In other hospitals, the pediatrician does it. So since I couldn't do it, I was told by one supervisor I shouldn't become a pediatrician. Never mind it was done other ways in other places with completely no problems to the babies whatsoever - in her mind what I was suggesting was so different, so outside the norm that it was an insurmountable barrier.