Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Deafies, Exams, Accommodations

I have a question for those who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing, and for the wider disability community at large. It is a question that has been concerning me, and I fear it might be controversial. But I’m not one to shy from asking the tough questions. And I really DO want to understand. So I hope someone can explain it to me.

Before going further, I must point out that I am a disability rights advocate. Some even called me a “rabid” disability rights advocate! I believe in equal access, and fight for it routinely. Now that’s out of the way…

The issue I am struggling with has to do with reasonable accommodations. Specifically, in the context of tertiary education. Imagine the following situation:

A Deaf student requires an interpreter during lectures. They also request reasonable accommodations for their final exams. The accommodation requested is extra time to write their exam – 3h30 instead of 3h00.

The interpreter for the lecture is straightforward. The Deaf student requires equal/equivalent access to the study "material". That’s a no-brainer.

What I struggle with is the request for extra time for the examination. This would be a written examination. It does not involve communication with another person. Everything is in writing. What would be the basis to justify the extra time?

The only thing I can think of is that English is in fact not the student’s primary language. That, in fact, Sign Language (signed or written) is their primary language, and there are significant differences between both. I know that both languages are significantly different. So not being a native English speaker will cause problems for the Deaf student in terms of both comprehension of the exam questions, and their ability to answer in "proper" English.

The issue here, from my perspective, is "how is that any different from a Chinese student’s problems with English?". We wouldn’t expect a non-native English speaker student from a different country to receive extra time to be able to answer their exam questions. So why would the Deaf student receive extra time because their English isn’t too good when the French student isn’t receiving extra time because their English isn’t too good?

So, people, what am I missing? There must be another reason for which the Deaf student should be entitled to extra time in their exams, other than not being comfortable with English. And if that *is* the reason, then how can it be justified to give this Deaf student extra time, but not the foreign student?

12 thoughts on “Deafies, Exams, Accommodations

  1. Actually foreign students can receive extra time on exams for that reason. I know someone from Iraq who took her teaching certificate exams and was allowed extra time.

    As far as the question, I don’t have any other explanation if everyone starts after the instructions are finished being explained and won’t be interrupted during the exam.

  2. I took an IT indistry exam a couple of years ago where people for whom English was not their first language were allowed to ask for extra time (before starting).

  3. @Sara, thanks for that. Extra time for exams due to being a non-native English speaker is not something that is routinely done here. Imagine a university with 25,000 students, where 10,000 of them are non-native English speakers, all asking for extra time… Might get a bit tricky?

    @Simon, thanks also. That is interesting indeed.

  4. That’s a good question and I’m pleased to hear that international students get extra time too. That makes sense.

    I used to teach web subjects and some of the classes were for International students only. I don’t remember ever being told we could give them extra time (in Australia). maybe the College was ignorant – as was I. :(

    Having been an Auslan interpreter in educational settings, I can tell you, that 30 minutes isn’t always needed, but it is necessary just in case.

  5. @Lisa, thanks for that. I should point out international students don’t get extra time in New Zealand.

    You say that extra time isn’t always needed but is necessary just in case. Ok, I won’t argue the case, but I *am* interested to know on which basis? That is what I’d like to understand. :)

  6. You’ve hit the nail on the head in your article.

    Native sign languages don’t have a written form. Therefore, when a student is reading exam papers in their second language, it will likely take them longer to do so than if it were in their first language.

    Keep in mind, with English in particular, I’m pretty sure we have the highest number of synonyms compared with any other language. Much higher than Sign language’s sign for word correlation.

    Extra time is required for the deaf student to translate it in their head and then seek clarification that they understand the question with the interpreter (if required).

    Think of it this way:

    I read the question in my 2nd language.
    I translate it to the best of my ability.
    It’s exam conditions and I’m a bit nervous, my English literacy is moderate, I’m not confident I understand the question (whether or not I actually do).
    I ask the interpreter if the question means ‘x’.
    The Interpreter says Yes.
    I answer the question.

    Takes up a fair bit of time, right?

    What if the Interpreter says “No”?

    Then they interpret the question, the student confirms they understand, and answers the question.

    Even more time required.

    The interesting thing is that, it’s always a flat 30 minute extension, no matter how many questions there are. So if it were a 3 hour legal exam with 3 questions, that’s not too bad.

    But what if it’s a 3 hour building construction exam with 20 questions?

    Apologies for the long comment, but thanks for the excellent question/ article :)

  7. Hey Lisa, no worries on long comments. It’s good stuff, needs to be discussed.

    In this situation, interpreters aren’t sitting with the Deaf students during the exam.

    So, going back to my question, how is the situation for a Deaf student so different from that of a Chinese student for whom English is a 2nd or 3rd language?

  8. Nic

    Perhaps it is not about being fair, but being legal.

    A person with disabilities has a right to acocomodation of all types in their own country. For example a person in a wheelchair has a right to get on a bus or a train and the bus or train operator has a legal obligation to grant accessibility. Why? Disabled people are also citizens, pay taxes, etc and should enjoy equal rights as all other citizens. If the same disabled person goes to another country, they no longer have the same legal rights or expectations. Hopefully the country will be accessible and hopefully one day everywhere will be accessible, but the disabled person has no legal right to demand it.

    On the otherhand if a Chinese citizen comes to a NZ university, they usually must pass a proficiency exam to demonstrate that their language skills enable them to compete relatively equal footing as a native. It is possible for a non-native speaker to become nearly as fluent as a native speaker. But if they are not, they are at least aware of the disadvantage before they begin their studies and probably have no legal right to demand extra accomodation.

    Even if you are a legal resideent but are not a mother tongue speaker of the language, you usually have to take language exams to demonstrate proficiency in the language in order to attend the university.

    I am not 100% certain if this is a correct answer. But it would make sense to me.

  9. In canada, \”language\’ is not a ground covered by the Human Rights Act (although \’nationality\’ is). Consequently in some cases, people would not be eligible to be accommodated because they speak Chinese for example. But the line is pretty thin….

  10. @Gene, for sure, there is a question of legislation in there. I obviously aim towards disability rights and against discrimination. And removing barriers related to a disability/impairment is high on my list of goals. For instance, I absolutely believe in the provision of sign language interpreters – This is not a question of second language. A non-native English speaker *can* learn spoken English (I did!), whereas someone who is Deaf would usualy be able to.

    The question I have, however, is how does *written* English become a barrier to someone who is Deaf, because of their deafness – Because they did not learn written English as a first written language. Ok. But they could. Just like non-native English speakers do. So one might argue that extra time to write exams is not really a reasonable accommodation on the basis of a disability. Because not having English as a first language isn’t, that I know, a disability ;)

    @Nathalie, right, language isn’t a protected class. And my wondering isn’t so much about the right of non-native English speakers to get accommodation, as it is to the obvious (I think) paralel between that and Deafies.

    Note, I’m NOT dissing Deafies. I’m NOT suggesting they shouldn’t get accommodations. But I *would* like to understand, from my D/deaf friends, how they can explain/justify the need for extra time in a written exam.

  11. NZ sign language is one of our three official languages – that’s the main difference I believe.

  12. Graeme,

    But the exam is not written in NZSL, it’s written in English. Native Maori speakers don’t get extra time to write their English exams. I don’t buy the “national language” approach, sorry.

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