A Walk in their Shoes: Challenges for State Examination Students with Disabilities

Image of child writing school work

Mike (not his real name) is a sixth year student, like many, preparing for his Leaving Certificate (LC) exam. Along with the typical exam nerves, Mike is facing an additional barrier making it nearly impossible for him to feel confident about his upcoming exams. Mike is legally blind, and after applying to use the digital format of the LC exam papers, his request was denied by the State Examination Commission (SEC). So what does this mean for Mike who still must sit his LC exam?

With a situation like this, Mike needs a legal remedy. There are constitutional rights and equality laws which protect Mike from being discriminated against in the education system. If Mike had to sit the LC exam in the traditional format, the result of this would be hugely challenging. For instance, for Mike to take part in his maths exam, the exam paper would have to be enlarged on the day of the exam to such an extent that it would run to approximately 52 A3 pages.

Can the education system discriminate against students with disabilities when sitting exams?

By law, schools cannot discriminate against students during exam periods. To discriminate against a student on the ‘disability ground’ means there is less favourable treatment of a student due to their disability. In this case, disability is broadly defined to cover physical, intellectual, learning, cognitive, emotional and/ or medical conditions.

Discrimination in education, (as set out in the Equal Status Acts) can happen in multiple ways. In the case of Mike, he has been discriminated against by not being given reasonable accommodation to sit his LC exam from the SEC. However, more broadly, under the Equal Status Acts, a school has an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities, and only if the school can demonstrate that it would be impossible or extremely difficult to teach other students and/or it would come at a considerable cost, can they refuse to make accommodations.

In Mike’s case, Community Law & Mediation’s children’s law solicitor assisted him and his parents in multiple ways. Firstly, our solicitor helped the family to make a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, alongside guiding them on communication with the SEC and Department of Education. Secondly, the solicitor instructed a barrister on their behalf and issued a letter to the SEC explaining the need for Mike to have the digital format LC exam papers, warning that plenary proceedings would be taken if the SEC failed to allow this. Through this assistance, the SEC listened to the concerns of Mike.

Yes, a solicitor is a trained legal professional who has a wide knowledge of the law. A solicitor will also understand and uphold the laws as set out in the Equal Status Acts, Employment Equality Acts and the Disability Act 2005. These laws all apply to issues of disability discrimination within the education system.

In Mike’s case, there was a successful outcome after the help of our solicitor. In October 2022, the SEC published the scheme of Reasonable Accommodations at Certificate Examinations for 2023. The scheme introduced examinations papers in PDF format for visually impaired LC students for the first time. Eligible students must be under the remit of the Visiting Teachers Service. The SEC will evaluate this pilot scheme following the 2023 examinations.

For Mike, this means he could sit his exams in a way that was accessible to him. For his parents, they found the assistance navigating the law and advocating on behalf of their family made the difference in vindicating their child’s rights.  

Worried about discrimination and want to talk to someone?

If you feel that you are facing challenges in education, such as, bullying or discrimination, we can offer you free legal advice on your individual situation. To contact us for free and confidential legal advice, you can: