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Accessible digital assessments for students with disabilities: specification, formats and implementation in schools

Paul Nisbet (CALL Scotland, The Moray House School of Education, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK)

Journal of Assistive Technologies

ISSN: 1754-9450

Article publication date: 15 June 2012




Many learners with disabilities and special educational needs have difficulty reading or accessing traditional paper examinations at school. The most common method of accommodating these candidates, in Scotland, is the use of reader and scribe. This paper aims to define a specification for digital examination papers for candidates with disabilities, identify a suitable electronic format, and report on trials of these digital assessments.


The support needs of candidates with disabilities were investigated through interviews with teaching staff and students, analysis of the type of requests made for accommodations, and the reasons for the requests. Findings from this exercise, together with consideration of the requirements of the examination context, were used to construct a specification for digital examination papers. Pilot trials using digital papers were then undertaken.


Adobe portable document format (PDF) was judged to match the specification most closely. Successful pilot trials in 2005, 2006 and 2007 led to the introduction of digital papers by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 2008.

Research limitations/implications

There is some evidence that digital papers provide a more independent and less costly alternative to reader/scribes; this requires further research.

Practical implications

Between 2008 and 2011, the number of requests for digital papers increased fivefold, indicating that digital question papers in PDF offer a practical and cost effective method of accommodation in examinations.


This research is of interest to examination boards, assessment designers, educators and learners. It demonstrates that candidates with disabilities can successfully access assessments in digital format.



Nisbet, P. (2012), "Accessible digital assessments for students with disabilities: specification, formats and implementation in schools", Journal of Assistive Technologies, Vol. 6 No. 2, pp. 136-151.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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