Taking an exam is, inherently, an uncertain activity. However, for Ali Tareen, a second-year student at Karachi University’s mass communication department, even knowing the answers is often not enough. Tareen is visually impaired.
Today, he is one of the many students advocating for the inclusion of technology in the examination method so that, once and for all, the blind can do away with the crippling dependency.
Hope to live
Tareen lost his sight to disease when he was merely 10 years old. Since then, through the help of technology, he has adapted to the darkness around him.
“Technology does not return the ability to see,” says Tareen with a quiet reassurance. “But it does give the hope to live.”
With the use of JAWS, a screen reading software, Tareen can adeptly respond to emails and text messages, use search engines over the internet, read MS Word documents, and work with voice editing software.
However, when it comes to appearing for his academic examinations, Tareen has to succumb to the decades-old tiring, throat drying system.
Back to the dark ages
Examination rules at major public sector universities across the nation require students with visual impairment to arrange volunteer writers themselves. These writers must be from a grade lower than their own degree. Hence, Tareen, a bachelor’s student, has to hunt for an intermediate student or a first year BA student willing to travel all the way to KU, simply to volunteer as his writer.
“It takes me days to find a writer,” remarks Tareen. “Sometimes, blind students have no choice but to accept anyone who is willing to volunteer. Later, we can face problems in verbal communication due to accent and language differences.”
In the same vein, Saira Saleem, a visually impaired lecturer at the special education department of the university, describes her examination experience as highly conjectural.
“We cannot review the answers, have no idea about the spelling mistakes made by the writer, and know nothing about his writing quality,” she explains. “At the end of the day we are not even sure if the volunteer writer has recorded our answers verbatim.”
Even with the 25 new enrolments on the disability quota this year, the total number of blind students at KU is not an entirely insignificant figure. Yet, the university authorities seem to be indifferent to their academic requirements. Jarringly, there is no official body on campus that deals with matters pertaining to students with disabilities. In fact, the director of finance claims there are no specific funds allotted for the needs of these students.
“In foreign countries, it is mandatory for institutions to provide the visually impaired students an expert writer who can write whatever they dictate. In Pakistan, however, students are forced to have junior writers who cannot even be from the same discipline. This sometimes results in students not passing the exam,” says Ammara Anwar, programme specialist at Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Anwar, who is also visually impaired, adds that even when institutions provide their own writers, most of them belong to the clerical staff and cannot even read what is being asked in the question paper.
According to Ammara, teaching methodologies and staff are not disability friendly, even in universities where students can take exams on laptops, like the National University of Modern Languages and the Qauid-e-Azam University in the capital.
Things are not much better at Punjab University (PU) either. Each department of the university enjoys autonomy to allow visually impaired students to take exams on their own personal laptops. However, Yousuf Saleem, a PU Law College student with visual impairment, says that if an individual is not skilled with technology, he is left with two unattractive options: an audio recorded exam or a writer. “There is no facility of Braille, which is the actual means of written communication for a blind person,” he laments.
Beacon of light
The Government College University (GCU), a semi-government institute is an anomaly in this system. In 2008, GCU developed a 1.5 million worth Centre for Special Students (CSS) with advanced facilities, which not only provide students with a choice to take exams on computer, but also offers the Braille facility.
According to the centre incharge, Salman Khalid, the majority of the students opt for the Braille method but the centre “encourages all students to adopt the computer option, as it’s more technological, independent and the best possible method.” The centre also provides students with computer training classes, he adds.
Tareen is adamant that the GCU model be followed nationwide and continues lobbying for introduction of computer based examination methods. “Things are not smooth, but I will keep on trying,” he says determinedly. “Until now, I have received a positive response. I am sure things will get better with time.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2013.