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Computer-based exam discriminated against blind candidate

US company found liable under UK law

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A qualifications body discriminated against a blind systems manager when it failed to make its computer-based exam accessible to her. The tribunal ruling is the first to find a US company with no presence in the UK liable under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act.

Sam Latif, 30, works as an IT project manager with Proctor & Gamble in the UK. In September 2004, she decided to study for a Project Management Professional (PMP) qualification, the most widely-recognised certification in project management in the world.

The PMP is managed by the Project Management Institute (PMI), a not-for-profit corporation based in the US. A textbook from PMI, its Project Management Body of Knowledge, known as the PMBOK Guide, is recommended reading for candidates before they sit PMI's four-hour multiple-choice examination.

At work Latif uses software called JAWS to convert text on her computer to speech, letting her read documents and browse the web. When she applied to PMI with a view to obtaining the PMP qualification there were more than a million copies of the PMBOK Guide in print. But Latif could not get an electronic copy that she could read with her JAWS software. A PDF version was sent to her, but Latif said she could not even open it. She later received a Word version that she could open but within which she struggled to navigate. In the end she paid a student to work six hours a week for her, reading parts of the book aloud that Latif would type up herself.

For the exam itself Latif requested the services of a reader who could explain diagrams and provide back-up in the event of technical problems; a copy of the exam paper in an unprotected Word format that she could read on her own laptop with JAWS; and additional time.

PMI agreed to provide extra time and a reader but refused Latif's request to use her own computer. "We do not permit people to take electronic devices in the testing centre as these may corrupt the good function of computers and because the PMP exam is delivered under strict security measures. We offer the PMP exam on the computer based or paper based form," explained PMI in an email to Latif. In reply, Latif suggested installing her JAWS software on the exam centre's computer. That request was also refused.

Latif sat the exam at a third party test centre in Edinburgh with the assistance of a reader, using what the tribunal described as a process of reading/repetition/note-taking/transcription of answers, over a total of eight hours.

She described the exam experience to OUT-LAW. "It brought back memories of when I was at school and when I'd first lost my sight," she said. "I've never really felt comfortable [with] other people reading to me; I've never felt comfortable having to ask people again and again if I didn't understand something. And because I'd been working and studying for more than 10 years using computers and audio speech, to actually go backwards 12 years in time and depend on another person to read the exam, I just found it really painful and quite upsetting."

Four of the exam questions involved diagrams. "The reader would take my finger and try and invisibly draw the diagram and I would try and remember the way it was laid out and try to keep all the information in my head," said Latif. "I found that quite hard because I like working with tactile diagrams – I work with them all the time." Tactile diagrams, where an image is raised on the page, were not available for the exam.

Latif added: "Technically it was possible and very simple to sit the exam in a way that was more accommodating to my needs but because of some peoples' attitudes I wasn't able to do it and I had to do it in this way that made me feel dependant and disadvantaged. I was kind of upset and cross and quite scared because I wasn't sure how it would actually turn out in the end."

She passed the exam, but by that time Latif had already begun proceedings against PMI under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1995. The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) supported her case.

The DDA is best known for banning discrimination by employers (in Part 2 of the DDA) and by providers of services (in Part 3). But Part 2 also bans discrimination by qualifications bodies and requires reasonable adjustments in exam arrangements.

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