Jasmi Ahonen attended a regular upper secondary school and took matriculation examinations despite her muscle disorder and is now preparing for entrance exams for Helsinki University. She is accompanied by her assistant Janna Nikulin. Among candidates preparing to sit their matriculation examination today, there are hundreds who could have only dreamed of doing so a decade ago.

Special arrangements for students with dyslexia have been available since the early 2000s, and it has been possible to apply for assistance on account of illness or disability for longer.

Currently, nearly 2,000 candidates are granted permission for special arrangements for exams every year.

“Matriculation examinations are a huge milestone for disabled students regarding their further studies,” explains Henrik Gustafsson, lawyer at the Finnish Association of People with Physical Disabilities (FPD)

“Under the UN disabilities treaty, people with disabilities are entitled to have access to further education along with everyone else. Their special needs must be accommodated in exams. Failing to do so is tantamount to discrimination, according to the treaty.”

Special arrangements are common, yet not all upper secondary schools undertake to organise them, says Airi Valkama, the chair of the Finnish Diverse Learners’ Association, a national dyslexia organisation, which campaigned for a law reform on special arrangements.

According to Valkama, headmasters are obliged to inform students about the possibility of the measures that can be taken to facilitate exams.

Jasmi Ahonen (19) graduated from Lohja upper secondary school last spring. She suffers from a hereditary muscle disorder, which was diagnosed when she was seven. In fifth grade, she started using a wheelchair and passed upper secondary school with the help of a computer and a classroom assistant.

She took her matriculation exam in a separate room supervised by an invigilator while her assistant waited in the corridor. She was permitted two extra hours to do the exam. “Going to toilet takes some time,” explains Ahonen. The illness also makes her hands tire easily.

Ahonen took the examination in six subjects, including history, which she now studies at Open University with the goal of passing the entrance exam for Helsinki University.

For schools, accommodating candidates with special needs at exams is becoming something they take in their stride, according to Panu Ruoste, the headmaster of the Lohja upper secondary school. The school has 200 students, with around ten requiring special arrangements for exams every year.

“The most common requirement is a two-hour extension to the exam time. For this, two extra invigilators are needed,” explains Ruoste.

“The biggest problem is that in these cases, the candidate needs a separate room for the exam and sometimes this can be difficult to organise.”

Permission for special arrangements must be applied from the Matriculation Examination Board. For a permission to be granted, the application must be signed by the school’s headmaster, explains Anneli Sihvo from the board, adding that experiences from special arrangements have been good.

“Special arrangements allow students who would otherwise not be able to attend upper secondary school to take matriculation examinations.”

The knowledge of having extra time can calm candidates with Asperger’s syndrome or ADHD, helping them focus on test questions without worrying about running out of time.

Candidates have generally benefitted from special arrangements, failing exams less often than students who have not received assistance, according to Sihvo.

“Candidates can only re-sit the exam in six months’ time. It’s time that could be better used doing something else.”

Päivi Repo – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
Image: Benjamin Suomela