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Visually impaired student in year-long fight for exam software

Disability policy — A determined medical student with a visual impairment may have paved the way for others to be able to use magnifying software on their computers at digital exams. And UCPH may have avoided a discrimination case at the last moment.

Stine Rømer Nielsen is a medical student at the University of Copenhagen. She is visually impaired and was born with her disability.

She has had written documentation since secondary school that she is dependent on a programme that can enlarge the texts for an exam by a factor of three on her exam computer, so that she can read and understand the assignments.

This programme exists. It’s called ZoomText. Yet according to Stine Rømer Nielsen, she has spent 5-10 hours per week trying to get a permit from the Board of Studies for Medicine and at the health science master’s degree programme to use ZoomText since starting her studies at Panum in February 2018 Her pile of papers with the processing of her case is 20 cm high.

Monday, 7th January, she finally got permission from the Board of Studies. She could therefore, four days later, attend the written exam in medical psychology and attend the exam in medical genetics the following week with ZoomText on her own computer. The permission is conditioned on her wiping the computer of all programmes except ZoomText and any other permitted aid software before the exams.

Positive – but not quite there yet

Stine Rømer Nielsen is relieved, but she has had some thoughts about the process. And she doesn’t feel that she has achieved her goal yet:

“The permit means that I can take the exam on Friday and on Wednesday (this interview took place after the decision, but before her exams, ed.), and this is positive. But I intend to continue the dialogue with the Board of Studies, because I believe that UCPH has still not taken into account that I need 50 per cent more time for my exams. Even with ZoomText on my pc, my reading speed is reduced, and it takes longer for me to navigate around the screen than for the others because of my visual impairment. The Board of Studies has only been willing to give me 25 per cent extra time,” she says.

Stine’s fight has been an important one. And it will also have an impact on those that come after her

Chaiman of the Study Board, Jørgen Kurtzhals, Medicine

It is the Institute for the Blind and Partially Sighted (IBOS) that has made the assessment that Stine Rømer Nielsen needs 50 per cent more time for her exams.

And when it comes to the entire process, she is in no doubt that it has influenced her study negatively, and she finds this unfair:

“One thing is that it has taken a lot of time. But it has also taken its toll mentally. I have not at any time had the peace of mind to know that I would get through the medicine programme. This has always been the concern for me. I find it objectionable that something that should have been a routine matter on formal requirements because my disability has already been assessed, should take a year to process in accordance with the Study Board’s ‘standard practice’,” says Stine Rømer Nielsen.

Changes will always result in a risk of breakdown

The University Post has asked the Board of Studies chairman, professor Jørgen Kurtzhals, why the process took so long.

Stine Rømer Nielsen sent her first application to use ZoomText on a computer to the exam on 4th March. She got her first rejection on 25th April. She appealed, and got her second rejection on 14th June.

Jørgen Kurtzhals, professor at the Department of Immunology and Microbiology, emphasises that he is not allowed to comment specifically on Stine Rømer Nielsen’s case. He can only answer general questions about the principles governing compensation for students with poor eyesight.

“At UCPH we have a very thorough digital examination system. Upholding this system, where there are many guarantees that it does not break down and with many backup systems for the students, is very complex. This requires, as we have been informed, that they are very rigid with their rules, as every time you make adjustments, you introduce a risk that the systems break down,” says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

Reliability for 3,700 students comes first

We have managed, however, to set up the UCPH digital examination system to aid all dyslexic students. For those students, all the necessary programmes are installed on all the UCPH exam computers, because dyslexia is a very frequent disability among the students, explains Jørgen Kurtzhals. But the UCPH computers on the other hand, are not yet prepared for students with weak vision, because there are relatively few of them:

“In medicine we have 3,700 students who must be able to attend digital exams and have good conditions. And we need to ensure that our basic systems are handled expeditiously,” says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

I am concerned with the UCPH exam facilities finding the necessary individual solutions for students with special needs. Otherwise the boards of studies will spend far too much energy on individual cases rather than on education
Chairman of the Study Board, Jørgen Kurtzhals

Stine Rømer Nielsen has fought for a year to get UCPH to let her use an exam pc with ZoomText installed, but this has not been possible.

The board of studies for medicine and the health science master’s degree programme have been informed by the UCPH exam facilities that this is not possible within a year. That is why Stine Rømer Nielsen at the last moment was given permission to bring her own pc with ZoomText installed.

“I am concerned with the UCPH exam facilities finding the necessary individual solutions for students with special needs. Otherwise the boards of studies will spend far too much energy on individual cases rather than on education,” says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

Stine’s fight will have an impact on other students

Stine Rømer Nielsen now has permission to use ZoomText on all exams for the rest of her bachelor’s programme. This is a step forward, considering the fact that her disability leads to significantly reduced reading speeds and rapid exhaustion. Her vision is so impaired that she at six metres distance can see the same as a person with normal vision can see at 60 metres distance.

She might even see her long struggle will lead to improvements for other students with visual impairments.

“I can say that Stine’s fight has been an important one. And it will also have an impact on those that come after her,” says Jørgen Kurtzhals,

However, this is about finding the right way forward.

“I hope that someone will find solutions that can be applied generally to all students with poor eyesight. And I believe that we need to have basic plans for them from the beginning,” says Jørgen Kurtzhals.

UCPH avoided discrimination case at the last minute

Stine Rømer Nielsen foran sin pc med ZoomText

Stine Rømer Nielsen in front of her computer with ZoomText running on the screen. At the bottom of this article there is also a close-up of ZoomText.

Part of the story about Stine’s fight is that the Danish Association for the Blind, exactly one month before Stine Rømer Nielsen got her permit, helped her send a letter to Rector Henrik C. Wegener stating that the Danish Association for the Blind considered her treatment as unfair discrimination.

In the letter from the Danish Association for the Blind dated 7th December it states that “we will support her in all the administrative and legal actions that Stine may wish to take in order to be allowed to sit her exam on reasonable terms. This includes reporting the University of Copenhagen to the Danish Board of Equal treatment”.

Invited to a meeting at the last minute

Stine Rømer Nielsen has also informed the government’s Agency for Science and Higher Education on the matter.

In a letter dated 18th December the agency responded to Stine Rømer Nielsen that we have “today forwarded your letter to the University of Copenhagen in order to get the university’s comments on your information. We have furthermore asked the university to send your applications and their decisions to the agency. We will get back to you when we have received the requested material. In conclusion, we can inform you that we have requested an answer from UCPH no later than 18th January 2019.”

The University Post does not know whether it has had any impact on the outcome of the case, but Stine Rømer Nielsen was invited to a meeting on 20th December at UCPH together with Jørgen Kurtzhals, legal consultant at UCPH Charlotte Paisley as well as section head Birgit Thomsen from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

The Board of Studies then processed Stine Rømer Nielsen’s case at the end of December, which led to the Study Board reversing the two previous rejections, and giving a permit five days before Stine Rømer Nielsen’s written exam.

UCPH in this way probably avoided in the last minute being brought before the Board of Equal Treatment by the Danish Association for the Blind.

Translated by Mike Young

 

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