So I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned about the exam arrangements available if you have declared a disability or chronic illness when studying at The Open University. If I have this post is somewhat of a repeat but if not…well here you go:

I recently sat my first exam with OU and was very nervous about it to say the least. The pressure of having to be well enough to think on a particular day is probably unimaginable to those who don’t have a chronic illness. Actually that’s probably a lie, pretty much everyone gets nervous and feels under pressure when it comes to exams they want to do well in, but with a chronic illness like M.E there’s an added pressure of not knowing how well you’re going to feel, and then there’s the fact pressure can make this illness worse. A tricky situation if ever there was one!

Anyway OU have been amazing at helping me with my exam needs. I can’t write for long, concentrate for long periods and travelling exhausts me. So what’s the solution? Well an exam sat at home, on a computer with extra time and rest periods of course!

Just because you have a disability or chronic illness doesn’t mean you can’t sit exams and get a degree. I’m proof of the former (as I’m sure many people are) and I’m on my way to proving the latter!

So how does it all work?

Well I had to declare my illness as a disability with the OU and request special exam arrangements. When I first started at OU I mentioned I had ME/CFS and I’d explained I’d probably need additional arrangements for my exams. I was told that I’d have to request this early on during a module with an exam in order for the arrangements to be put in place.

Until October 2013 I had no modules with exams, they were all EMAs. But for B203 I had to put the arrangements to the test. I got an email about three months into the course asking me to complete an online form stating what additional arrangements I thought I’d need and they’d see if they could accommodate them. I’d need a letter from my doctor confirming my illness and explaining how it affects my ability to sit an exam. I essentially had no idea what would help, although my Disabled Students Allowance needs assessment had given me a few ideas; the use of Dragon Naturally Speaking software was an option, as was sitting the exam at home, extra time and rest breaks were also mentioned.

In the end I decided I could manage to type for the exam period, although Dragon Naturally Speaking software does come in useful I don’t use it that much – I need to train it more and haven’t had the chance during my courses, besides sometimes I find talking more exhausting than typing even though typing can hurt! So on the form I asked to sit the exam at home, on the laptop provided to me through DSA using Microsoft Word and with extra time and rest breaks. The most difficult part I found was deciding how much extra time and rest breaks I’d need. In the end I settled for 45 minutes for each. There was also the option of stating any times you are unable to sit an exam due to your disability, I used this to say when my concentration is usually at its best; after 11am but before 5pm.

Thankfully this was all accepted and that was how I was allowed to sit my exam. It started at 11:30am and would finish at 4pm unless I completed it earlier. The invigilator would come to my house and the exam would be sat in my living room. That was some pressure off me!

On the day itself I actually used all the rest time allowed, and realistically could probably have done with a little more – something I now know for next time – but I didn’t use all the extra time for answering. I finished with 30 minutes of the time I had allowed to spare. Not a bad thing as it gave me time to check my answers over and make any necessary changes.

Although my answers were all typed on the computer and saved to a USB flash drive provided by the OU, I had to print a copy of my answers off to submit with the exam paper. This was easy done, although I was a little worried as me and the printer don’t always have the best working relationship!!

All these additional arrangements made it possible for me to sit the exam on my module, without them I don’t think it would’ve been possible. After about half hour of writing by hand my writing becomes almost illegible; even I struggle to read what I’ve written let alone anyone else! My concentration tends to be long gone after an hour of continuous thinking, so rests are essential, they allowed me to pace myself a little – this doesn’t mean I didn’t suffer after the exam (I did) but I’m certain it lessened the severity of the symptoms I experienced. Sitting the exam at home removed the need to travel, something I find exhausting at the best of times; I haven’t really left my home county for years, and only venture to surrounding towns on occasion. In fact recently leaving the house to go anywhere that might be busy has been a rare occurrence because I have been so unwell.

Anyway I’m hoping sharing my experience of sitting exams with the OU will help others with a chronic illness who are considering studying. It can be done. I can’t deny it is tough, incredibly so at times, but with the help and support of friends, family and the place you’re studying at it is possible! So whatever you do don’t give up!!

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