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Landmark Decision for Leaving Certificate Students with Dyslexia

Equality Authority Press Release - 22 Nov 2006

Two former Leaving Certificate students with dyslexia have succeeded in a claim of discrimination under the Equal Status Acts 2000 - 2004 against the Department of Education and Science in relation to the annotation of their Leaving Certificates. The case was supported by the Equality Authority.

An equality officer of the Equality Tribunal has found that the Department of Education and Science discriminated against two Leaving Certificate students with dyslexia by annotating their Leaving Certificates. Their Leaving Certificates contained an explanatory footnote which stated that the complainants were assessed on all parts of the examination in each subject except spelling and written punctuation elements in English and spelling and some grammatical elements in other language subjects.

The Department of Education and Science have been ordered to:

  • issue new Leaving Certificates to the claimants without the relevant notations,
  • investigate the feasibility of creating and implementing a system of accommodation which can meet the needs of each particular student applying for accommodation based on their individual assessment,
  • pay each claimant €6,000 compensation.

Welcoming the outcome of the case, Niall Crowley, Chief Executive Officer of the Equality Authority stated "this case is about creating a level playing field for students with disabilities with other students in the assessment of their achievements under the Leaving Certificate. It is important that the examination system is now reviewed to ensure that it is accessible to all participants and that it represents a fair assessment of the ability or educational attainment of a student with dyslexia. This is urgent in a context where there is a policy commitment to ensure access for people with disabilities to mainstream education. This policy commitment is compromised where people with disabilities do not have access to an examination system that adequately and fairly assesses their educational attainment within mainstream education."

It was argued on behalf of the claimants that the Department of Education and Science were requiring the students to sit a standardised examination which does not permit a disabled person's ability to be measured in comparison to others without reference to their disability. Secondly, the annotation of their Leaving Certificates suggests that the complainants' results were not real results which are as meritorious as the result of a student obtaining the same grade but without the annotation.

The annotated Leaving Certificate labels the complainant as a person with a disability. This undermines the student's right to privacy. 'Complainant A' suffered significant embarrassment when the results of the Leaving Certificate came out as all her friends wanted to know why her certificate was different. She had not previously revealed her disability.

The Department of Education and Science argued that the annotation is a necessary balance to protect the integrity of the examination certification process and that the certificate does not record that the complainant suffers from a disability. 'Complainant B's' spelling and written punctuation in English had not been assessed in her Leaving Certificate examination nor had her spelling and written grammar in Irish and French. The Department argued that the annotation arises only because the complainants have applied for and been granted reasonable accommodation. They argued that the annotation can only arise because the complainants have already been treated more favourably than others in the first place.

The equality officer stated that it was worthy of comment that there is an assumption running through the submissions made by the Department that the exam process is sacrosanct, and that it is absolutely objective. No evidence, she stated, was produced to confirm this viewpoint nor, according to the equality officer, did the Department present any evidence in support of their assertion that the annotation is necessary to maintain the integrity of the certification process. They failed to present any evidence that the annotation actually achieves that goal. The viewpoint of the Department is clearly discriminatory as it proceeds on the basis that one size fits all, thereby discriminating against students with disabilities.

The equality officer noted that the Central Applications Office, which is possibly the biggest single end user of Leaving Certificates, accept the grade presented on the Certificate without taking account of the mark adjustment indicated in the annotation. Therefore the Central Applications Office does not require this information to be provided by the Department.

The equality officer accepted that employers who routinely use Leaving Certificates as part of their recruitment process would quickly come to know that people with annotated certificates are people who had a disability of some sort at the time they sat the examination. In her view the annotation reveals details about the Leaving Certificate holder which they may not have been otherwise obliged to reveal wherever it was not relevant. In such situations, the decision to reveal their disability or not has been taken out of the hands of the complainant.

While the integrity of the system is vital and is correctly something to be aspired to, the equality officer noted that the Department's position is undermined in regard to annotation when the marks that are given to those who sit their exams through Irish are considered. Those students are given an extra 10% in some subjects, 5% in others. The Leaving Certificates of these students bear no indication that an adjustment has been made and they are not annotated in any way.

The Department of Education and Science set out their belief that what they provide for students with disabilities sitting the Leaving Certificate is reasonable accommodation in terms of the Equal Status Acts. The Department was of the opinion that any reasonable accommodation given to students with disabilities confers an unfair advantage on the recipient. The equality officer stated that the approach of the Department "is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the reasonable accommodation provisions in the Equal Status Acts. The purpose of reasonable accommodation is to provide for a situation where people with disabilities can avail of a service on an equal footing with those who have no disabilities. Reasonable accommodation is to remove a disadvantage rather than to confer an advantage. It is to allow people with disabilities to take part on a level playing field while allowing for their disability."