Published: 28th March 2023
Failing the test: No Braille questionnaire; deafblind Prof Tomkinson turned away from UGC-NET, again
By simply requesting a question paper he could read, Prof Miranda Tomkinson's voice echoed the urgent need for greater accessibility towards those with disabilities
As the dust settles on yet another round of the National Eligibility Test of the University Grants Commission (UGC-NET) exams, the conversation about accessibility for candidates with disabilities continues to simmer. Among them is the case of Professor Miranda Donbosco Tomkinson a deafblind candidate who has already cleared the UGC-NET twice in 2013 and 2014 for sociology. "Deafblindness is not just the sum of two parts, it is a unique disability in itself," said Prof Tomkinson. "It presents unique challenges to those affected by it, including difficulties in communication, mobility, and accessing information."
Despite his disability, Prof Tomkinson has two postgraduate degrees and hoped that special education in UGC-NET this time would open up more opportunities for him, something that sociology does not guarantee. However, despite numerous letters, emails, and requests to make sure he could appear for the exam, he was denied basic accommodation - a Braille questionnaire - during the UGC-NET December 2022 session.
“As a deafblind, it is imperative that I need a Braille questionnaire,” asserted Tomkinson, who also has a court order from the Madras High Court (HC) for the questionnaire. As we delve into Prof Tomkinson's story, we are reminded of the challenges that people with disabilities face in pursuing their dreams.
Reading the question paper without assistance: Prof Tomkinson’s story
In a country where education is often touted as the great equaliser, the persistent discrimination faced by persons with disabilities is a harrowing reality. Prof Miranda Donbosco Tomkinson's story brings this injustice into sharp focus. By simply requesting a question paper he could read, his voice echoed the urgent need for greater accessibility towards those with disabilities.
In 2013, Prof Tomkinson moved the Madras HC seeking help to "work and live with dignity" and fought for a Braille questionnaire, which he finally received after two months of struggle. Justice Vaidyanathan's words ring clear and resolute: "If the UGC is not going to provide this, it would amount to clear discrimination. The officials ought to have taken note of the difficulties of the disabled persons and should not have made them run from pillar to post as they are already helpless." The order also mandated that UGC must fulfil all other conditions mentioned in the office memorandum issued by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) Department of Disability Affairs. This memorandum stipulates that persons with disabilities should be given the option to choose a mode of examination, including Braille, computer, or large print, and that they should be allowed extra time and the use of assistive devices.
Despite court orders and mandates, it seems that the UGC has continued to violate the rights of persons with disabilities. Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance, has taken up Prof Tomkinson's case and questions why the UGC cannot provide a Braille questionnaire every time. "Within two days UGC printed a Braille question paper for Prof Tomkinson and sent it from New Delhi to Chennai," she recalled. "Why not give the Braille questionnaire every time?"
No Access, No Opportunity: Prof Tomkinson’s failure despite order, emails and more
Apart from a court order and the memorandum from the MSJE, Prof Miranda Tomkinson shared with EdexLive multiple emails that were sent to various authorities, including the Controller of the UGC-NET and the commissioner for persons with disabilities. An email was also sent by Jacintha Lazarus, IAS, Commissionerate for Welfare of the Differently Abled to the Chairman of UGC, the NTA, the Chief Commissioner of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD). Yet, when Prof Tomkinson arrived at the UGC centre this year, there was no Braille question paper for him.
In his letter to the commissioner for persons with disabilities, dated March 3, 2023, Prof Tomkinson conveyed his need for an exclusive questionnaire that would allow him to make the most of his abilities during the exam. “I need accessibility…as a deaf-blind person and unable to make maximum use of a scribe unlike a visually challenged person I would need an exclusive questionnaire at the time of the exam,” wrote Prof Tomkinson. He reiterated the same in his letter to the Controller of UGC-NET, however, the response from the Controller of UGC-NET only mentioned the provision of a scribe and compensatory time. Prof Tomkinson responded again emphasising that as a deafblind individual, he required more than what a scribe usually aids blind people with. He stressed, "I can’t hear as well as see," and added, "I would need to be specially treated: From that of a blind person and along with my scribe would need an additional question paper i.e in transcribe braille!"
Upon hearing of the UGC's continued failure to provide a Braille questionnaire for deafblind candidates, Smitha Sadasivan expressed her frustration, calling it a "clear violation of the court order". She stated, "I don't understand why this is happening again and again. I strongly protest and condemn the insensitivity and lackadaisical attitude of the UGC to be this way.” Echoing these sentiments, Vaishnavi Jayakumar, co-founder of The Banyan, an NGO, highlighted the importance of equal opportunity for all candidates, stating that the lack of provisions like Braille is only the tip of the iceberg. "It is a denial of an equal opportunity to appear in an exam. And it is happening in a variety of ways like exam centres are getting allocated in faraway places for people with locomotor disability,” she said, adding, “NTA is not putting in place a provision for revising things."
Jayakumar further suggested that the process of requesting accommodations for PwD candidates needs to be streamlined and made more inclusive, stating, "The current application process by the NTA only addresses the scribe aspect, leaving no consideration for multiple disabilities. Further, the litigations are mostly individualised and do not trickle down to adjusting as a whole”
More than just scribes: Overlooking accommodations for multiple disabilities
Scribes are the only provision that was provided to Prof Tomkinson in the UGC-NET this year, and the only provision that is also listed in the application process of the exam. Voicing her concerns, Vaishnavi pointed out that while the blind community has accepted scribes, they are not ideal. “So much micromanaging happens and they are not even reliable. Not many adopted the computer technology that is available,” she lamented.
Vaishnavi shares the public notice of the NTA for Persons with Benchmark Disability (PwBD) to state, “Only forms in the application process are for scribes.” The notice states that a scribe will be given if so desired by a person with benchmark disability “in the category of blindness, locomotor disability (both arm affected-BA) and cerebral palsy.” Unfortunately, the notice does not address multiple disabilities as in the case of Prof Tomkinson. “A blind person can hear and use a human reader. But deafblind people can’t use a scribe and have the maximum out of it,” reminded Prof Tomkinson, over and again.
Moreover, the use of scribes can sometimes be counterproductive for deafblind candidates like Prof Tomkinson. His wife, Rexy, deems scribes an additional disability, as they can be anxiety-inducing and strip away their independence and control over the exam. "No disabled person ever should have to rely on scribes in today's world," she stated emphatically. Prof Tomkinson, who is highly self-sufficient and even learned how to use a smartphone independently, expressed his frustration via WhatsApp, “The NTA does not provide anything apart from a scribe. No large font size, no Braille questionnaire.”
However, guidelines from the Department of Disability Affairs, MSJE state that persons with disabilities should be given the option of choosing their exam mode, be it Braille, computer-based, or large print. The use of technology can easily convert question papers into large prints, e-text, or Braille and even convert Braille text into English or regional languages.
CBSE vs NTA: Streamlining disability accommodation
Vaishnavi Jayakumar emphasised the need for NTA to learn from the experiences of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and other education boards in India that have made efforts to cater to the needs of students with disabilities. "If CBSE could streamline it, NTA can as well," she asserted. CBSE used to be the board that conducted these exams before NTA took over and according to Vaishnavi, Braille booklets were a part of its request, unlike NTA.
“CBSE pigeonholed people but at least it made efforts; everybody else has restricted themselves to just scribes. Braille did not enter the picture at all, unfortunately,” Vaishnavi added. She believes that the NTA needs to streamline the process and add it to the application process itself to make things easier for everyone and eliminate the need to rely on local people who may not be sensitised to the needs of the disabled. Highlighting the story of a person with dysgraphia, who was allotted extra time but was not properly accommodated by the exam centre, she said, “Just because the extra time was not properly codified in their system, the people at the centre snatched away her paper within 3 hours.” She added, “CJI Chandrachud, had urged the NTA to improve its accommodations for students with disabilities because it cannot just be dependent on their local people.”
Vaishnavi shared a comprehensive document of the CBSE 2019 board exams that shows the remarkable level of inclusivity and sensitivity that the CBSE board displayed in their approach to students with disabilities. The document contains an exhaustive grid of disability codes that cover a wide range of accommodations including built access (ramp, lift, toilet, door width, power), assistive devices, scribe, reader, language exemption, large fonts, and more. The grid also lists various types of disabilities ranging from leprosy-cured persons to dwarfism, acid attack victims, mental illness, Parkinson's, multiple disabilities, and others. “Why are they failing now, if this has already been done before?” asked Vaishnavi in exasperation.
Disabled and Disadvantaged: Others who faced such recurring discrimination
Preethi Srinivasan, the ex-captain of the under-19 Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team who was left quadriplegic after an accident and has since co-founded SoulFree, an organisation that advocates for people with spinal cord injuries, recounts her experience with accommodations during her UGC exam. She states, “You can list three centres and usually PwD people, especially wheelchair users are given a first choice but when I went to the centre I had to be carried to the 1st floor through steps into a storage room or broom closet of some sort. They cleaned that place up and kept one camera, one fan and a bucket of water with a towel to put over my head. Just gave me one consideration, and gave me one hour extra for a 3-hour exam. Also, the marking system is different I guess.” Vaishnavi responded to Preethi's ordeal, calling it "unacceptable," as a person with a spinal cord injury cannot regulate their temperature and should not be made to sit in a storage room with just a bucket of water and a fan.”How can a person with spinal cord injury be carried like that and made to sit under a fan with just a bucket of water in the middle of summer.”
Preethi has expressed concerns over similar discrimination earlier, in a Facebook post she wrote, “India keeps shining in its apathy and indifference…. A class 12 student who is also a wheelchair-user, is forced by school authorities to write the examination on the third floor.” Informing that this is not an isolated incident she added, “I'm so tired of this. Of working to sensitise people who just can't be bothered, who just don't care, for whom one person in a wheelchair means nothing.”
In another case, Avni Prakash, a candidate with a disability, appearing for the National Eligibility-Cum-Entrance Test (NEET), was entitled to one hour of compensatory time for the three-hour exam, but the paper was confiscated after only three hours. Prakash filed a case against the NTA, and according to reports, the Supreme Court accepted the argument that the Prescribed Certificate has to be furnished at the stage of admission rather than the exam. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also emphasised the need to adopt a human rights model in the assessment and certification of disabilities, stating that multiple assessments should not create an undue burden for applicants. Smitha Sadasivan noted, “The onus to fight is not on the people. We are deprived, so the onus is not on us to fight for it. We cannot navigate an inaccessible environment for this; the system should compensate for these people.”
Of false promises and hope: The reality of accessibility for people with disabilities
The stories of Prof Miranda Tomkinson, Preethi Srinivasan and Avni Prakash are just one of the many instances of discrimination faced by people with disabilities in India. Despite the existence of laws and guidelines to ensure accessibility, the lack of implementation remains a significant challenge. As Smitha Sadasivan rightly pointed out, “The solution lies in the acts, just implement it.” The Indian government has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which sets standards for accommodating people with disabilities during exams. The CCPD has also issued guidelines for conducting written exams for PwDs, yet it appears that these promises are merely on paper. “All these promises and ideals are rarely acted on,” said Vaishnavi, resonating with the sentiments of Tomkinson and countless others.
According to Smitha, these guidelines are not enough. “The authorities responsible for upholding them should be held accountable and punished for failing to comply with the law.,” she said. "The Supreme Court should take this up and give a strong verdict. The CCPWD has given guidelines, so why be so careless?" Additionally, she also stated that the court should “highly compensate” for all the issues that people with disabilities are being put through “for something as basic as accessibility.”
However, the court verdict may not always be effective in rectifying the situation as Vaishnavi pointed out, “Don’t know if Tomkinson will be given a re-attempt at all because SC couldn’t do it for Avni Prakash, I doubt they’ll be able to do it for Tomkinson.” She concluded adding, “Can’t believe he might have to go to court for the same thing he has already got a verdict for. It is a real shame.”