Monday, November 23, 2009

Blind woman in California sues National Conference of Bar Examiners over accommodations

From the San Jose Mercury-News:

Being blind didn't keep Stephanie Enyart (pictured) from graduating from Stanford University. It didn't keep her from earning a law degree at UCLA. And she's determined not to let it keep her from practicing law.

Enyart, 32, is suing the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which repeatedly has denied her request to take the bar exam using adaptive technology.

She was a 15-year-old high school sophomore growing up in Nipomo, south of San Luis Obispo, when she learned she suffered from a rare form of macular degeneration called Stargardt's disease. Her central vision was deteriorating rapidly, and there was no way to stop it. At first, she refused to believe it.

"I was a kid; I didn't accept that I was going to be disabled," she told me.

She aced high school by using big-print textbooks, but by the time she got to Stanford, she needed a computer with adaptive software. Today, with no central vision but some peripheral vision, she lives by herself, gets around without a white cane and reads using ZoomText, a screen magnifier, and JAWS, a text reader that converts computer type to audio. That's how she got through law school, and that's how she reads e-mail and legal documents in her job at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley.

Enyart graduated from UCLA last year. When she applied to take the bar exam, the California Bar Association told her she could use both JAWS and ZoomText for the test. But the NCBE, which controls the multistate standardized portions of the exam, turned her down — three times. She was told she could use JAWS, the audio text reader, but not ZoomText.

She was baffled. The Americans with Disabilities Act grants disabled people the right to reasonable accommodations when taking professional certification tests. Having only an audio reader might work for some blind people, but Enyart is accustomed to reading as well as listening.

"It's like if a person is running a marathon who wears size 8 shoes, and they say they'll give you shoes, but they're size 5," she said. "It just doesn't work for me."

When I called Erika Moser at the NCBE, she declined to comment. So I don't know what the conference's rationale was. Enyart says the NCBE cited cost and security concerns in denying her request.

"That's bizarre," said Anna Levine, one of the staff attorneys at Disability Rights Advocates who filed the lawsuit earlier this month. Yes, there would be a security issue if Enyart brought her own laptop into the exam room. But the NCBE already provides laptops with audio reader software for blind applicants, she said.

"We would be happy to provide the other software," she said. "We are talking about a piece of software that costs $400. That's the cost standing between Stephanie and her career."

There are fewer than 500 blind lawyers in the country, according to one of them, Scott Labarre, president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers. He has a theory about why the NCBE won't grant Enyart's request.

"I think they're just being stubborn," he said. "In my view, it's a very reasonable accommodation. Today most blind students go through law school using a variety of technology."

If the NCBE thinks Enyart will give up without a fight, they've got the wrong woman. She's not just fighting for herself; she's fighting for all disabled students. While in law school she founded the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities and served as the first president. In her lawsuit, she isn't asking the NCBE for damages, just an assurance that other blind people will receive the accommodations to which they are entitled.

"If she wins this case, it would be a huge victory for blind lawyers in this country," said Labarre. "I just want her to have the same chance as other law students to practice law."

After all, it's not as if technology will give Enyart an advantage over test-takers who can see. She still has to move her eyes around the enlarged page to see with her limited peripheral vision and listen to the questions with headphones. As exhausting as the three-day test is for any bar applicant, it's even more physically demanding for her.

But Enyart is accustomed to doing things the hard way, if that's the only way to get what she wants. And this young woman really wants to pass the bar so she can help other disabled people fight for their rights.