A surprise audit of one of our exams venues really brought home to me what we mean by the social model of disability. One of the auditors noticed that a candidate was having to be carried by their parents up a flight of stairs in order to take the test. In failing to understand this candidate’s needs and, in turn, in failing to put in reasonable adjustments we had failed in our duty to create opportunity for disabled people. In this instance we, ourselves, were the disablers – not the individual with the physical condition. That is when understood what we mean by the sociaI model and when I realised that we have a responsibiity to carry out access checks on all our exam venues, put in place reasonable adjustments and communicate to everyone – both disabled and non-disabled – that we can help people realise their potential regardless of physical condiation. Our supporting the social model had failed in this instance; I’ve made sure it has never done so since.
Teaching Centres, Exams & EDI – a work in progress
Many people find taking an exam daunting. If this is an exam like the IELTS, often a keystone to a future in a different country, the pressure can be immense. It magnifies handicaps, both perceived and real; and if we add a physical disability of any kind, the problem is exacerbated manifold. How can the British Council, as a premier institution devoted to maintaining EDI standards across the board, rise up to this challenge?
A recent experience brought me face to face with the strain that a visual disability could put on a student taking the exam. In my opinion the exam format itself is not specifically geared to deal with this; a person who is visually impaired takes the same general or academic test. They are given extra time of course, which means that instead of a 2h 45 m exam candidates get 5h 30m! I cannot even imagine the strain that must place on a candidate. However, making the exam itself more EDI compliant is for Cambridge and the other stakeholders to look into.
We run courses that prepare students for the exam. The questions that we need to ask here involve the Council’s preparedness to deal with candidates with disabilities of any nature and the preparedness of the teachers to teach inclusively. In order to ensure a smooth customer experience from start to finish candidates need to get accurate and complete information from the get-go. This is clearly not the case at the moment.
In this case, not only was the student unaware of the need to specifically request for modified material and the time it could take to organise this, she was not informed that she had to submit a disability certificate in order to qualify for this material. No one at customer service in the office was able to give us any information as to what modified materials meant and what documents the candidate had to submit. Finally, although she had registered 5 months before she actually took it, her exam date had to be postponed by a further 3 months. Getting some clarity on the various issues meant multiple exchanges with a contact person in exams in the national team and an endless wait for clarification. So, in order to improve customer experience there has to be better flow of information between candidates and customer service, readily accessible information in the form of a checklist listing the steps to be taken by candidates with any kind of disability when registering for the exam or a course and finally a more transparent system where everyone involved knows what needs to be done.
This brings me to the next stage of the customer’s journey with us – the classroom. The question that needs to be asked here is whether the teachers in the ELC are equipped to deal with disabilities. Sadly few, if any, are trained for this. I believe the way forward lies in taking the following steps:
– train teachers to deal disabilities
– provide candidates with disabilities who register for our exam-prep courses more individualised training that will specifically prepare them for the exam they are to take, the way they will be taking it. This after all is what we promise our customers.
– ensure students with special needs are fully aware of all the facilities that will be at their disposal on the day of the exam.
– ensure the support staff at the examination centres are aware of what the candidates require and the people accompanying the candidates don’t run from pillar to post getting things organised.
Our lack of norms when it comes to candidates with disabilities flies in the face of our EDI commitment. We need to improve these aspects of the service we provide to ensure a more equitable and inclusive customer journey not least because by failing to do so, we leave ourselves open to liability suits.
This candidate had to take the exam again at the behest of the university, 5 months after she took it the first time- this time the more expensive UKVI exam. The exams team was very helpful and ensured that she could take the exam at the earliest so as to not miss the January intake.
However, communication from the customer service team was often incomplete, sketchy or just plain erroneous. For instance when she contacted customer service she was told that everything was on track for her exam. She then received another call which told her no application had been made for modified material and that she would not be able to take the exam on the date that she had registered for. She was also told that she may have to defer her admission. The uncertainty just added to the candidate’s tension.
The candidate was forced to contact the Exams and ELC contact for clarification. This could have definitely been avoided.
The British Council in Qatar has been working to raise awareness of disability issues and support the greater involvement of disabled people in our own programmes and in Qatar society for the last three years, and this remains a major focus of our country strategy across arts, education and society and English.
Our main activities have been a sustained Arts and Disability programme, which has reached out to other sectors. We have worked with top UK and local partners, involved disabled people in planning and delivery and created sustainable long-term projects with demonstrable impact and policy outcomes.
The Arts team in Qatar has been working on the disability and inclusion agenda since 2013, as part of the Gulf Arts strategy. We held the first ever Arts and Disability Festival in MENA during Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture with a range of UK and local partners, and this made significant impact locally, as well as being the first overseas legacy project from Unlimited 2012.
In 14/15 we were keen to build on this work and sustain the programme. After consulting with local partners, we developed a concept note for a major international conference to address disability issues in education, employment and the arts, against the background of an exhibition by UK and Gulf disabled artists. Qatar stakeholders were very interested, as there is recognition that disability legislation and disability rights are in need of improvement, and they were keen to benefit from UK expertise. However, as always funding was an issue and we needed a major corporate partner if we were to deliver against our ambition.
The main aims of the conference were:
• Challenge and change the perceptions of policy-makers and the wider public with towards people with disabilities through open discussion and the Ilham art exhibition
• Share Qatar’s successes and challenges with other countries
• Give a voice to young people with a disability
• Compare local policies and services with international best practices
• Encourage and inspire people with disabilities to reach their full potential
• Develop an action plan for future initiatives to improve inclusion and accessibility prospects for people with disabilities in Qatar
The organisers agreed on eight central themes for the conference to demonstrate that accessibility and disability need to be regarded from many different perspectives:
• Disability Legislation: Overview of international standards, policies and practices
• Employability – Disabled people’s right to meaningful employment and support
• Building accessible digital platforms in Qatar
• Attitudes & Disability Terminology
• Education: Ensuring access and engagement for all
• Art – A Vehicle to Change Perceptions
• Accessible Museums and Galleries
• Finding accessible Doha
The planning and delivery of such a major conference around disability also created a wonderful opportunity to take on a project manager with a disability to work as part of the British Council team, and we were very fortunate to find Abdi Gas, a member of the Deaf community who was based in Doha and had experience in arts project management for UCL Qatar. Abdi had exactly the right skill set and knowledge to be able to assess and meet the accessibility needs of the 20-plus disabled delegates who attended the conference. Abdi was fully supported during his time with us, and we kept him on after the event to work on the report, recommendations and legacy. We ensured that he had his preferred BSL interpreter through the busiest periods before and after the conference, and he also delivered sign language lessons for staff as part of staff meetings.
Abdi became a hugely popular member of the British Council team, and having him with us made everybody more aware of each other’s’ needs. He did a great job on the project, and feedback on his performance and presence in the team was exceptional. We are now committed to reaching out to employ more members of staff with a disability and are working with the Ministry of Labour to facilitate this across the country as part of the legacy of the project
We faced some significant challenges in the lead-up to the project. Firstly we had to meet different accessibility needs of over 20 disabled delegates travelling in from overseas. We took advice from a wide range of Qatari and UK organisations on this, with Abdi in the lead. Hotels were a challenge, but manageable, although we needed to brief staff extensively. Transport was very complex, as accessible buses are somewhat unreliable in Qatar. We were able to offer business to the first accessible taxi firm in the Gulf. The most difficult part was to drive through a number of accessibility improvements to the conference and exhibition venue, the Museum of Islamic Art, including the installation of accessible toilet kits very close to the event itself.
The second major obstacle emerged when three months before the event the Museum of Islamic Art insisted that all works of art presented by disabled artists for the exhibition had to have an Islamic art theme. This was unexpected, as it has not been part of original discussions, and meant we had to create a totally new exhibition from that originally planned.
At first all partners said that this was impossible, as our UK artists did not have any work with an Islamic art theme! After a tense couple of weeks of negotiation, we managed to guide our British Council UK team, Shape Arts and the Museum of Islamic Art to a suitable compromise. All UK artists would come to Doha for a 2-week residency at the museum, and would develop an artwork inspired by Islamic art, under the guidance of Qatari experts. As it turned out, this obstacle was the greatest opportunity we could
have wished for, as it meant that the final exhibition was the product of real intercultural exchange between disabled artists from across the world who had all spent time together in Doha working with experts on Islamic art.
The ILHAM art exhibition accompanying the conference was curated by the British disability arts organisation Shape Arts and Qatari curator, and was displayed at the Museum of Islamic Art for ten days. The exhibition brought together works by seven disabled artists from the UK, the Gulf and the rest of the world, each of which was inspired by an object in the Museum of Islamic Art. The intercultural aspect of the exhibition, as well as the exceptionally high quality of the artworks, made it even more special and memorable, and it was very well received by the Qatari public.
AGAINST ALL ODDS- Michael’s STORY
When I first interacted with Michael, I was impressed by his cheerful and engaging disposition. Michael is one of the candidates who sat for their IELTS exam at the British Council Nairobi centre in June 2015. Michael got impressive scores – no mean feat for the average person. But to Michael, these high results are a double blessing for him, being that he is one hundred percent visually challenged.
Michael, who is computer literate, fluently speaks English French and Kiswahili languages and is currently a special needs education teacher in Kenya at a refugee camp. He won an award in 2014 for the work he does. He is a motivational speaker who has contributed to the empowerment of and advocacy for PWDs with knowledge of their rights and their role in the development of the country to be able to achieve equal participation by all without discrimination in line with the constitution.
Michael is the ninth borne in a large family. His parents never had any proper formal education or formal employment and only engaged in subsistence farming. His father was a jua kali artisan. He lost his sight at the age of six months due to a measles attack.
Michael recalls his early year of life as very challenging. His parents struggled to pay for his school fees right from primary school. They would walk long distances with his mother to school, many times reporting to school late due to lack of school fees. When he was admitted to secondary school, his father sold the only cow that the family had, to pay for his school fees. His struggles with school fees continued throughout high school. To this day, he does not know who paid the money for his registration for the KCSE exams. Sometimes when schools closed, he would remain behind in school for lack of money for transport. Twice he spent the night at a bus stop on his way home, since he did not have enough bus fare and was waiting for friend who worked for a bus company to give him a lift home.
Michael’s interactions with the British Council came about as he prepared to sit for this IELTS exam. The exam, which is an English proficiency test is required by those seeking a higher education in the UK, and other countries worldwide. Michael did his IELTS exam purely in braille and says that his proficiency in using braille was a huge contributing factor to his brilliant results. He further says his experience as a French language teacher helped him in identifying with the different components of the IELTS exam: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. For preparation, he used the free online IELTS material to prepare for his exam, and says it is imperative for all prospective IELTS exam takers to familiarise themselves with the modules of the exam. His message for all those with any kind of disabilities who may be wary about taking the IELST exam is that: “Those with visual impairments should know that the IELTS exam is accessible to them. British Council has the resources and manpower to handle provision and administration of the IELTS exam for those with disabilities. Though the standards during the IELTS exam were very strict, never at any given point during the exam did I feel like my disability was a hindrance to the dissemination of the exam. I had and still have the strictest confidence in the exam process and I commend the level of professionalism that I encountered during the entire process. In a society where procedures and services are made for the able bodied, it is a pleasant surprise when you feel that fairness and due process has been exercised in order to meet your needs, as a person who is living with a disability.”
Michael says his purpose in life is to pursue his Master’s degree and PHD in one of the renowned universities in the world. He may be closer to actualizing this dream, as he is slotted to benefit from the a Scholarship scheme. He currently has admission to a university in the UK.
He is also in the process of writing an autobiography where he seeks to recount his life and times with a view of encouraging and inspiring the young and the old alike to always endeavour to keep hope alive even in the face of suffering and difficulties. His vision is to see a Kenya where every blind person will be able to participate proactively in all spheres of life without any barriers, fear or favour owing to the very tough experience he had to go through in order to attain his education and coupled with the myriad of challenges facing the blind in the country as a whole, he says he is keen to help establish computer centres for the blind around the country .These centres will serve as resource centres where the blind will be trained in computer literacy thereby enhancing information access and economic wellbeing of this group that totals to around 300,000 Kenyans.
— This story has been anonymised prior to publication, please contact Paul Gibbs for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org —
When James was involved in a serious car accident 2 years ago, his future looked bleak and he was unsure of the direction his life would take. James was hospitalised for close to one year and during that time, he reflected a lot on the plans he had made for his life and how the aftermath of the accident would change the course of his life. Nonetheless, the lengthy hospitalisation and recuperating on a wheelchair did not undermine his competitive nature. James says he left the hospital a changed man. He felt the futility and fragility of life, and he experienced first-hand the limitations of science and human knowledge.
Buoyed by will to live, James decided to take a bold step after leaving the hospital and decided to apply for a Scholarship. Even though there were insurmountable odds against him, he took one challenge at a time and began his application process. After submitting his scholarship application, his first challenge was to identify a British Council office where he could take the mandatory IELTS test, a requirement for his Scholarship. There are no formal diplomatic offices or British Council centres in Somaliland. He applied online for the IELTS exam and travelled all the way from his hometown in Somaliland to the British Council in Nairobi, to take the test.
James’ application was successful and he was selected as one of the final applicants for the prestigious scholarship scheme. He joined the University of Bristol in the UK to further his education in Community Development and Project Management.
James is passionate about improving the livelihood of the pastoralist communities where he comes from. His dream is to invent a portable solar-powered, educative multimedia kit that enables pastoralist children to continue with their education without physically attending nearby village schools regardless of the climatic changes, environmental challenges, lack of electricity and internet connection.
By getting an opportunity to study at the University of Bristol, James hopes to further improve on his innovation idea, by adopting the best of technological advances and research that the UK has to offer.
He further says: “Winning the Scholarship despite coming from a marginalised background and living with a disability is a clear testament to me that the UK and British Council really do create opportunity irrespective of one’s circumstances. The opportunity provided to me has made me Somaliland’s first recipient of this Scholarship, a feat that I am immensely proud of.”