Online exams leave disabled students disadvantaged without extra time

It seems cruel to punish a student for something they may not be able to predict

Online exams are coming up, and there have been increasing worries about whether extra time will be allocated to disabled students with an ILSP. Both of us are disabled students, and we concerned that the lack of support given will affect our exam experience.

The policies of departments and faculties on whether extra time is allowed have been incredibly messy and contradicting. Some are allowing it, some are not, and some don’t even seem to know what their policy is. It seems that the university is underprepared to increase accessibility for disabled students during this time.


I am a first year student, and I have two 24 hour exams, one in history and the other in film studies. Apparently, I am allowed extra time for History, but I am not entirely sure how it will work. This is an issue within itself. Dealing with chronic anxiety means that a lack of planning and clarity can be debilitating. It is not just about having a fair chance in exams but also about clarifying how the process will work. This is just another added stress put upon studying for exams.

I am not entirely sure what the policy is for Film studies; I am yet to find out. However, if the outcome is negative, then that will be disappointing. There is often the argument that giving 24 hours to students is inclusive to disabled students. However, this is a sweeping assumption.

Disabled students are not a monolith. Similar experiences may unite us, but we are not the same. I know that I will struggle with this form of exam simply because of when the exam starts. By the time it gets to the afternoon, I am often fatigued mentally and physically from my anxiety, meaning I struggle to focus on work. This is why starting the exam in the afternoon worries me. If I had extra time starting in the morning, some of that stress would be reduced. Each disabled person has their own issue to deal with, and I don’t believe the university has fully realised this in the context of online exams.

People don’t talk about the physical side effects of mental illnesses enough. They can be just as severe as the psychological side effects. As mentioned above, I deal with fatigue and constant stomach issues, muscle pains, dissociation and feeling faint. I’m worried that not having any extra support in these exams as I do in normal exams will mean that my physical symptoms will be just as hindered as my mental ones.

Writing this, I realise that others have even less leeway during most exams, so why should I be complaining? That brings us to a greater conversation about the culture of exams within humanities. Writing essays under timed pressure has never worked well with me. I often get brain fog and struggle to think straight. When I leave the exam, I suddenly think of new ideas that could’ve made the essay better, and I kick myself for it. At least this 24-hour window allows me to make those additions. I don’t believe that essays should be timed pieces anyway. I don’t personally understand why it is a required discipline.


For my first year law exams, I have one 24 hours written exam and one 60 minute test. Out of both of these exams, I have no extra time or ability to extend the time frame. I have several mental health issues that make concentration or writing coherently in a brief period about as easy as booking a last-minute place in a pub on the first day of lockdown restrictions being lifted.

I had extra time in exams during my Access to HE course. I’ve been lucky enough to gain extensions on coursework, and my ILSP states I should have extra time in exams with rest breaks, so why are these exams different? Why am I, and everyone else with an ILSP doing these exams being treated as neurotypical students when we aren’t?

This may not seem like an issue for some. Still, when you have a host of mental health issues that make concentration a physical nightmare with the day after a stressful environment feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck, it’s a real kick to the teeth to be denied something like extra time. It’s wholly unfair to expect disabled students to work simultaneously as no-disabled students yet expect us to have the same grade potential on exams.

What if a student has a flare-up of their condition and cannot complete an exam in the 24 hour period? What are they to do – hand in nothing? Wait for resits? It seems cruel to punish a student for something they may not be able to predict.

Categorising disabled students into the same box is unbelievably ableist. Yes, some students with disabilities will find a 24-hour exam beneficial, but not all will! I have ADHD and anxiety with severe clinical depression. Basically, I will be an unstable ball of energy that cannot focus combined with a soul-crushing void of stress and panic for the entirety of the 24-hour exam.

I’ve experienced a 24-hour exam already for my criminal law module, and I experienced two days of fatigue, physical pain, and tears after I submitted the exam. Throughout, I was unable to focus for more than 20 minutes at a time and riddled with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

I love my degree, but I hate that this exam format has already been proven to negatively affect my mental health and make daily life physically and mentally painful for an extended period afterwards.

I don’t know how I’m going to handle a 24-hour exam again. We seem to be held to a higher standard in open books exams since the information is in front of us the entire time. Still, when brain fog and other neurological symptoms affect your concentration and memory, I don’t see how this makes sense.

We reached out to the university to comment on these issues. A spokesperson for Lancaster University said: “Due to the challenges of Covid-19, wherever possible Lancaster has taken an inclusive and flexible approach to exams this year. This approach is designed to take the circumstances of this year into  account while upholding the high academic standards a Lancaster degree promises to deliver.

“Students qualifying for approved additional time will have those approved adjustments in their Inclusive Learning and Support Plan (ILSP).

“Open book exams that are restricted time period exams of 23 hours duration are designed to be fully inclusive for all students. This format has been designed and developed in association with the Disability Service at Lancaster University.

“If other adjustments are needed because of disability-related accessibility issues, Departments and the Disability Service will work with individuals to ensure accessible assessment arrangements.”

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QUIZ: Tell us your essay crisis, and we’ll tell you how likely you are to drop out