How Zanzibar Examinations Council caters for children with disabilities

HAVE you ever wondered how deaf, blind and low-vision students write their national exams using braille or large prints? If not, here is a spot check on how the Zanzibar Examinations Council (ZEC) caters for such pupils.

Over 127,550 candidates will commence their national exams between October 30th and November 8th and from December 4th to December 12th, 2023. Among them, 655 equivalent to 0.5 percent are pupils with special needs.

ZEC exam timetable has made available three variants of the exam timetable namely normal, large print and braille.


Braille is a system that helps blind or deaf-blind students to write and read by touch with the aid of a braille machine.

Students with special needs do the same exam administered to other students with the only difference being time allocated to write their exams.

Isles Minister of Education and Vocational Training, Lela Muhamed Mussa, told the exams supervisors to ensure that every candidate is treated fairly according to the needs adding that deaf-blind students will use braille machines in national examinations.

 “They do the same exams but they are allocated an extra thirty minutes because operating a braille machine is not similar to writing using a pen and paper,” she said, adding that students would read the questions through touch as the students use their hands to feel the texts on a heavy paper.

The paper has raised dots that prevent the pages from lying smoothly together as they would in a print book.

 “When it comes to answering the questions they would use  braille machines to write their answers,” she told journalists last week.

Using a braille machine might be quite confusing for others but for students with special needs is less of trouble albeit requires a high level of concentration.

Unlike a typewriter or keyboards which have more than fifty keys, the braille machine has only six keys with a space bar.

These keys are numbered to correspond with the six dots of a braille cell which are in parallel and vertical columns like the six dots on a dice identified by numbers one through six.

Number 1, for instance, is a sign for letter a, and 2 for b and 3 for c and so on. Therefore 254 can construct the word bed.

The deaf-blind students also use the braille machine to write their  composition works like normal students but they are allocated 10 extra minutes.

In essay writing, the braille machines also cater for punctuation and well-constructed sentences free from grammatical errors as required.

The cells can be used to represent an alphabet letter, number, and punctuation, part of a word or even a whole word.

Capitalization, for instance, is accomplished by placing a dot 6 in the cell just before the letter to be capitalized.

To produce various letters of the alphabet and other braille symbols, a student pushes the braille keys separately in various combinations.

Using the braille machine consumes a lot of energy and is slower than a laptop.

 “Unlike keyboards, pushing the keys continuously to come up with sentences especially when writing a composition is very hectic and unlike normal students, they feel the symbols to read the questions. That takes a lot of time,” said Mohammed Haji, a teacher for special students.

He said there is no specific reading speed for students using the braille system compared to the varying reading ability of normal students.

 “The sense of touch varies from each student just like the reasoning ability varies in normal students. Some sense the letters faster than others,” he said and added, students are awarded marks and ranked just like the normal students.

“Teachers who mark their exams are braille-literate and they are being awarded marks fairly like normal students,” he said.

According to the National Federation for the Blind Organisation based in America, experienced braille readers, can read at speeds of 200 words a minute, unlike print readers who can read 400 words in sixty seconds.

Large print

Large print exams, on the other hand, are meant for students with low-vision. They can be partially blind or one-eyed.

Fatma Alawi, a former candidate who wrote her national exams in 2020 with the aid of large print exam papers explains her experience.

Despite her being partially blind, Fatma thinks she read the questions at a normal speed just like other normal students.

She noted that the adjustments of the papers were aimed at helping students with special needs feel normal to write their exams normally.

“The large prints help a low-vision student to read at the same speed as normal students. So for me, I felt normal,” she said.

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