The SQE, like its predecessor, the QLTS exam, is a complex and difficult qualification assessment with strict rules. The SRA is committed to creating equal conditions for all foreign lawyers regardless of their background and state of origin. For those with a disability or other condition which may present extra challenges for candidates when sitting the SQE, applying for any adjustments to the assessment methods may appear to be a difficult feat to accomplish.
However, provided that you are indeed eligible for reasonable adjustments, achieving them is far from impossible.
The SRA aims to ensure that no one is disadvantaged, so when it comes to sitting the SQE, reasonable adjustments may apply based on the evidence submitted by the candidate. Such adjustments are applied on a case-by-case basis.
As dyslexia is very well recognised in the UK, domestic candidates should be very familiar with the adjustments available and the respective procedures to request them. However, this process may be more challenging to navigate for overseas candidates, most of whom are foreign-qualified lawyers, as these candidates might not experience the same level of awareness of and accommodations for this condition in their home country compared to the UK. In this article, we will focus primarily on this category.
Faces of dyslexia and SQE
One of the conditions which may qualify for reasonable adjustments is dyslexia, a learning disorder that is mostly characterised by severe learning difficulties in reading, spelling and writing associated with problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. As a result, people with dyslexia may face difficulties with phonological processing, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills.
All these things make it difficult for people with dyslexia to perform activities which may seem easy and ordinary for others.
Although dyslexia can affect cognitive areas such as memory, processing speed and time management, this does not mean that people with this condition have poor intellectual abilities – on the contrary; they may even have exceptional strengths. But a lack of the above-mentioned skills and qualities inevitably leaves these people at a substantial disadvantage in standard exam conditions compared to others.
This is especially relevant for the competitive and comparative SQE1 and SQE2 exams, where time limits are strictly imposed for each and every component assessment.
Studies show that at least 10% of the population has dyslexia, which is usually first discovered at school age. This disability can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or age. However, many people don’t realise that they have this condition until adulthood, or not at all. The reasons for this include a lack of awareness and education about the disorder, or growing up in an environment with zero tolerance for some of the effects, such as poor spelling.
Regulation and recognition
Unlike in the UK, where dyslexia is covered by the Equality Act 2010 and employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for dyslexic staff members in the workplace, in mainland Europe, most countries do not have the same national awareness or protection for workers or students with learning disabilities. While there are no specific laws in Europe on workplace dyslexia, general provisions are stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and an EU directive on equal treatment in employment which prohibit the discrimination of people with disabilities and oblige employers to provide necessary accommodations. The situation is better in the US, where dyslexia is formally recognised at federal level with nearly all states having adopted specific laws addressing dyslexia. Only three states have no specific laws in relation to dyslexia: Hawaii, Idaho and Vermont.
Although foreign lawyers qualifying in the UK may not be accustomed to treating dyslexia as a disability, the UK approach established in the Equality Act 2010 strictly mandates that employers make suitable adjustments to workplaces if disabled people so require. Moreover, adjustment practices may also apply to other conditions that are not considered a disability e.g. physical conditions.
Other conditions which may qualify for reasonable adjustments
The SRA recognises a wide range of other conditions and disabilities for which a number of adjustments may be granted. This list includes, but is not limited to: visual and/or hearing impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), depression, anxiety, arthritis, chronic pain, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, hypoglycaemia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or tendonitis.
This list is not exhaustive, and it is also important to note that the SRA has indicated that it is willing to accommodate other conditions which may not be defined as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, within reason. If you have any of the above-mentioned conditions or any other condition which may affect your ability to sit the SQE under the standard assessment methods, it is worth submitting a request to see what accommodations may be made to help you.
How to obtain the SQE reasonable adjustments?
What, then, are the practical steps that foreign lawyers or students need to take to apply for reasonable adjustments when sitting the SQE?
(i) Evidence in support: make sure that you meet the SRA specific requirements
For dyslexia and other learning disabilities, those who reside in the UK may find a list of approved specialist assessors on the SpLD Assessment Standards Committee website (https://www.sasc.org.uk/), and a list of approved psychologists on the Health & Care Professions Council website https://www.hcpc-uk.org/. Some difficulty may arise, however, when you reside overseas and have to submit the respective evidence from your home jurisdiction.
Be aware that you cannot provide evidence from just any specialist who might consult you in your country e.g. your doctor (general practitioner, GP). The SRA has specific requirements with regard to the disability assessors when it comes to assessing learning disabilities. They can be specialist teachers who are certified to assess specific learning difficulties or practising chartered or educational psychologists. So, first make sure that your assessor from back home will be recognised by the assessment provider.
For other conditions or disabilities, evidence can be provided by a suitably qualified professional with expertise in the condition, such as your GP, occupational therapist, or other healthcare professional.
The assessor should then produce a report, which should include:
- the nature of the disability;
- its effect on the ability of the disabled person to perform in the assessment; and
- the requested reasonable adjustments for the candidate and how these adjustments will address the candidate’s needs.
The report must be provided in English (or in Welsh for candidates sitting the SQE in Welsh). If your assessor provides a report in your native language, it must be submitted along with a certified translation.
The SRA allows for different adjustments depending on each person’s circumstances, for example:
- additional time for certain assessments in the SQE exam;
- additional breaks in the assessments;
- enlarged or coloured assessment materials;
- the use of a computer or laptop for handwritten elements of the assessments;
- separation from other candidates;
- permission to have food or take medicine during the SQE assessments.
You may not necessarily be granted all of these adjustments, but possibly one or more depending on your specific case. For example, when it comes to dyslexia, you may expect to receive additional time.
(ii) Application and timing: request the adjustments before you book each assessment
The SQE1 and SQE2 assessments do not follow the same format, so you are required to submit separate requests for reasonable adjustments for each stage, after registration and activation of your SQE account.
If you request adjustments after the particular SQE exam registration deadline, the SRA may be unable to accommodate your needs on time and you may have to postpone your assessments to a later date. If you are unable to provide the evidence together with the request, you may submit the request without the supporting documents and attach the evidence as soon as it becomes available.
The best advice is to communicate with your disability assessor well in advance of making your application, in order to obtain the evidence beforehand. Your domestic disability assessor may require additional information about the specific details of SQE1 and SQE2 and general information about the SQE for foreign lawyers, so be sure to have this to hand.
This information is readily available on the SRA website, but you may possibly need to translate it into your own language. After the assessor’s report is ready, you should submit the reasonable adjustment request form through your account on the SQE portal and attach the evidence. The request will be further assessed by Kaplan’s Equality and Quality team. The decision will be sent to your SQE account.
If you consider the proposed adjustments to be inappropriate and you have discussed this with Kaplan’s Equality and Quality team without reaching any agreement, you can submit an appeal to the SRA against the reasonable adjustments being offered. In this case, you should provide your evidence together with substantiation of your disagreement. You will receive notice of the final decision on the application within 10 working days. If the appeal is upheld, a new ruling on your reasonable adjustments request will be made within five days.