A blind law school graduate has won what her lawyers hope is a final ruling from a federal judge in San Francisco vindicating her right to have the technological aids she sought when taking a bar exam.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued a summary judgment Monday finding that the National Conference of Bar Examiners violated the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act and California civil rights law when it refused to give Stephanie Enyart the aids she requested.
Breyer also ordered the organization to provide the combination of computer screen magnification and text-reading software sought by Enyart in any exams she takes in the future.
Enyart, 33, who graduated from law school at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009, began suffering from macular degeneration while in high school, has lost most of her vision and is legally blind.
Larry Paradis, a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, said, “We hope this ruling will send a message that testing agencies need to provide full access on these kind of tests that provide the gateway to a profession.”
Paradis said Enyart has now passed most of the bar exam after receiving the aids she requested as a result of two preliminary injunctions previously issued by Breyer.
In November, she will receive her test results on the final portion of the exam and has a job with a civil rights organization in Los Angeles that she can take when she passes the exam, he said.
But Paradis said the ruling gives her the right to have the aids she requested if she has to retake the exam, and also sets a precedent for other cases.
Breyer’s summary judgment comes after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in January upheld his preliminary injunctions and the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 3 declined to hear the exam group’s appeal of that decision.
The judgment could be appealed by the bar exam conference, but Paradis said he hopes the case is now ended.
A spokesperson for the Wisconsin-based organization was not immediately available for comment on whether the group will appeal.
Enyart’s 2009 lawsuit concerned only two portions of the bar exam controlled by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The California State Bar had allowed her to use the technology combination she requested for the state portion of the exam.
Enyart said she needed the combination of visual and auditory aids because she had learned to read visually before becoming blind, and had not learned to rely solely on her hearing or on Braille to process information.
She said she can use her remaining peripheral vision to read short items of highly magnified text, but suffers eye fatigue and nausea after five minutes, and therefore does best when she can navigate between magnified text and spoken text.
The NCBE offered her other accommodations, including a human reader, Braille or magnified text. It argued that those options met the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and that Enyart’s plan would be a financial and administrative burden.
But the 9th Circuit said in January that the standard to be used in interpreting the law was which technology would “best ensure” that Enyart’s performance on the test reflected her knowledge. After the Supreme Court turned down the exam group’s appeal, that standard controlled the case.
Enyart now lives in Los Angeles, but filed her 2009 lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco because she was living in Berkeley at the time, Paradis said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News
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