The Price of Exclusion: A Student With Disability on Delhi University’s Open Book Exam

In a recent reunion with her Les Misérables (2012) colleague Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway told Variety, the magazine, that director Christopher Nolan does not allow chairs on film sets because,

“[…] his reasoning is, if you have chairs, people will sit, and if they are sitting, they’re not working [sic].”

This pervasive scepticism towards “rest” is, of course, not unknown to working-class, marginalised, persons with disability – be they workers or students. The ‘sincerity’ of our work ethics is tested by how willing we are to ‘work’ against the needs and limitations imposed on our bodies. How willing we are to endure pain to reach a decided goal is supposed to be the true grit of our character. How many lectures were attended, how few holidays were taken – all these establish the sincerity and dedication of our labour, our ‘merit’, as students and workers in an enumerative economy.

To speak freely about illness or the human body’s need to rest is construed as an excuse to evade hard work till, inadvertently, someone gives in or dies. Then an entire social machinery of platitudes, powered by residual public guilt, works like clockwork till no more guilt is left.

To put it simply, a good student or a worker should not prioritise their body over their work.

We are living in an extremely uncertain, if not unprecedented, time. People, apart from living in the fear of an unknown virus, are also negotiating political and socioeconomic crises. I, being a student, have not seen my university – Delhi University – in the last four months. It is a sad possibility that, perhaps, the last lectures will probably won’t take place – fragments devoid of closure.

On top of that, my university is adamant to conduct online Open Book Examinations (OBE) this month for its final-year students, even as the world continues to be on the brink.

It is worth remembering that DU is one of the largest public universities in the country. It caters to many marginalised students for whom education would be, otherwise, inaccessible and unaffordable. It is also worth remembering that experts fear that the worst of the pandemic is yet to hit us.

In such times, one would expect a vivacious and historic university like mine to be empathetic and be conscious of the need to set new precedents in inclusive pedagogy.  But, as the students and teachers of DU have learnt in the past months: this is not to be.

Also read: COVID-19 and DU: An Inquisition Into the Proposed Online Examinations

The problems with OBE were glaringly visible from the very beginning. Students went home for mid-semester holidays, in March, to never return to their hostels and PGs. In the meantime, we have faced two cyclones and are facing a flood in many parts of the country, currently. All in the middle of a pandemic, of course. Perhaps, it is human nature to worry about one’s life over everything else when faced with such a choice.

But, the university and its regulatory bodies clearly deem us perfectly capable of going through the grind of exams at present. The show must go on, productivity must remain unhampered, undisturbed by the times. The crises we face on the daily basis, must not define our dis/abilities in regard of our ‘work’. It is almost as if all of us are acting in a tasteless parody of James Cameron’s Titanic.

And yet, our problems remain unresolved: online classes have been uneven, attended by only those who could access internet on the given day(s). Secondly, academic literature is, on most days, costlier than blood. This inaccessibility is only aggravated during the pandemic when libraries and universities remain shut. Thirdly, online examinations are inherently discriminatory and exclusionary — awarding those who have resources and penalising those who are disabled or unable to afford these resources.

Students need to have internet, computers and scanners, at the very least, to give online examinations. These are prohibitively expensive technologies for many students as well as teachers. Students with disabilities face further radical problems wherein our need for accessible study materials as well as a scribe who will sit near us and transcribe our answers verbatim, are at odds with the protocols of social distancing in a pandemic.

In the most recent notification on the matter, dated June 29, the university informs us that the visually-impaired students, who may not have any internet accessibility, are supposed to email their respective colleges. and departments, which are shut and/or understaffed, to get accessible study materials. They can also contact the NGO “Saksham”, which has kindly partnered with the university. Visually-impaired students are also asked to contact their respective common service centres for scribes, if they are availing ICT facilities from there.

It may be kept in mind that according to the rules set by the ministry of human resources and development, every student with benchmark disabilities is entitled to a scribe, if the candidate(s) so will. This includes students with cerebral palsy, students with locomotor disabilities, affected in both the arms, and sight. The university — hopefully unintentionally — divides students with disabilities into two arbitrary groups and fails to address our issues or ensure our rights. Though it gives us five hours as a ‘kind’ one-time measure, it would mean nothing but a placatory ploy if our needs were not fundamentally accommodated.

The farcical absurdity of an imperative such as this is cruel, to say the least. The university asks students, who do not have the prerequisite technologies, to travel to the nearest common service centre to take exams typically scheduled in the morning, amidst a pandemic. These services, fortunately, are free.

Also read: ‘Unjust and Unfair’: DU Students Reject Online Semester Exams

These considerations come after a protracted struggle by the teachers and students of the university. This does not, of course, include students who are stranded in remote or volatile areas where finding a cellular network is a Herculean task. They might have to give their exams belatedly and get their results belatedly. The university’s overriding compulsion to absolve itself of any responsibility is a pure travesty.

On June 27, the university postponed the OBE till July 10. The new date sheets are to be released merely a week before the exams. On the June 28, it released a date sheet for mock tests as well as guidelines for the exams. Memes of the repeated clerical mistakes in the date sheet have been doing the rounds ever since. To be honest, they give us cheap thrills. But, the underlying problem is right under our noses; the university does not have the manpower to smoothly conduct these exams.  It is affectively gambling with our futures.

For many, this would mean a year of debilitating unemployment. And, we have been chosen as collateral damage. Clearly, the university is not concerned about ensuring fairness or transparency in its planning. The ‘Step-4′ in the guidelines — to be followed in the exams — asks us to put our names and other details on the first page of every answer. This perverts every convention of impartiality and equality.

Many students could face tangible biased repercussions of this oversight. One can but be curious about DU’s callous insistence on the OBE as other institutions cancel their exams.

What does DU want? It does not want the poor and the marginalised, certainly. Or, at least, it could not care any less about us. We are to be reminded, once again, of our calibrated spaces in these seemingly progressive institutions. We are allowed to be here only till we become inconveniences to the status quo.

Nearly 110 years ago, Kafka wrote in their diary entry for July 19, 1910 :

When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects. I was not, as a matter of fact, educated in any out-of-the-way place, in a ruin, say in the mountains —something against which in fact I could not have brought myself to say a word of reproach. In spite of the risk of all my former teachers not understanding this, I should prefer most of all to have been such a little dweller in the ruins, burnt by the sun which would have shone for me there on the tepid ivy between the remains on every side; even though I might have been weak at first under the pressure of my good qualities, which would have grown tall in me with the might of weeds [The Diaries 1910-1923, p.8].

My university has to nurture everyone like the sun; it has to heed the trials of our times. It must cancel the OBE.

Krishnaa Samal is a person with disability and a postgraduate student of History at Delhi University.

Featured image credit: Reuters