The Braille Monitor _______ December 1997
NFB Sues Law School Admissions Council
From the Editor: On April 4, 1997, the National Federation of the Blind filed suit against the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) on behalf of three blind students. The students (Ross Kaplan, Latonya Phipps, and Shannon Dillon) argued that the reasonable-accommodations and equal-access protections afforded disabled people under the Americans with Disabilities Act had been denied them when they attempted to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), administered by the Law School Admissions Council.
Kaplan and Phipps were denied the right to bring trained readers of their own choice with them when they took the grueling law school entrance examination. LSAC officials insisted that they use readers assigned by the Council to take the test. Despite the fact that proctors are always present to insure that no inappropriate communication takes place between reader and blind student, the LSAC officials maintained that using readers who were familiar with legal vocabulary and had experience following the students' instructions constituted a breach of test security.
Dillon was refused the right to use a Braille writer and paper during the LSAT even though sighted students may write in the margins of test pages and on blank pages in the test book. She requested permission to use her Brailler several weeks ahead of the test, but LSAC officials insisted that she had not done so soon enough.
The lawsuit also argues that the LSAC's policy of sending a letter to each law school to which a blind student's scores have been sent invalidates the student's LSAT scores. The letter in question explains that the blind student took the LSAT in "nonstandard" conditions and therefore the LSAC cannot predict how accurate an indication the test will be of the student's ability to do the work in law school. The complaint points out that blind law graduates have been taking and passing the bar examination for years without anyone's raising a question about their ability to practice law merely because they used Braille, readers, large print, or other reasonable accommodations to take the test.
The April 21, 1997, edition of The National Law Journal was only one of a number of publications to carry a story about this suit. The Journal article, written by Joseph Slobodzian, was the most accurate and comprehensive one that appeared. Here is the story he wrote:
Blind Test-Takers: LSAC Failed to Comply with Disabilities Act
Three aspiring pre-law students who said they were unfairly treated by that grueling rite of passage, the Law School Admission Test, have shown that, regardless of their scores, they know what a real lawyer would do.
Specifically, the trio sued the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the test, contending LSAC violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate the three students who are blind.
The students--Ross Kaplan of Washington, D.C.; Latonya Phipps of Atlanta; and Shannon Dillon of Rohnert Park, California--contended in their suit filed April 4 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia that all were top-scoring undergraduates who were sabotaged on the LSAT by the council's refusal to let them use their own human readers or Braille note-taking equipment. Forced to take the test without the use of aids, the suit said, all three did poorly, damaging their chances of being accepted by a top law school. Kaplan v. LSAC, 97-cv-2350.
The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia because the council is located in Newtown, about thirty miles north in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Scott C. LaBarre, a lawyer with the National Federation of the Blind in Denver, who filed the suit with New Hope, Pennsylvania, lawyer Martin J. King, said he believed the suit was the first challenging a standardized test for violating the federal disabilities law.
The suit asks for an order to prohibit LSAC from discriminating against the blind and to let the three students retake the LSAT at no cost and "free of the discriminatory policies set forth above." LSAC counsel Joan Vantol said she was prohibited from commenting on complaints involving individual students or on pending litigation.
The suit says LSAC offers some accommodations to blind students, such as providing the test in Braille, providing human readers for the exam, providing the test on cassette tape, and offering the blind additional time to take the test. But those accommodations do not remedy the hurdles the test presents to individual blind students, the suit maintains.
Mr. Kaplan, for example, the lawsuit says, took the LSAT October 5 at American University in Washington, D.C., and asked the LSAC if he could use his own human reader and a CCTV, a television device the legally blind use to magnify print.
The council allowed Mr. Kaplan to use his CCTV but rejected as a security breach his own reader. LSAC said he could use a council-supplied reader.
The suit says Mr. Kaplan took the test under protest with an LSAC reader and did "very poorly," scoring a 143, which ranks in the 21.9th percentile of those taking the test.
Mr. LaBarre said the relationship between a blind person and reader is so individual that using a strange reader is "like forcing somebody who needs eyeglasses to take the test wearing the wrong pair of glasses."
Ms. Phipps, for example, took the LSAT last October at Clark Atlanta University and reluctantly agreed to use an LSAC reader, who Mr. LaBarre said, was inexperienced with legal terminology and obviously had never worked with a blind person.
Ms. Dillon, the suit continues, took the exam last December at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and sought permission from the LSAC several weeks earlier to use a Braille typewriter to make notes during the exam, maintaining that sighted students are allowed to make notes in the margin of the test paper. The LSAC refused, although it relented when she retook the test earlier this year.
Mr. LaBarre said the LSAC's refusal to accommodate the twenty-five to fifty blind students who annually take the LSAT negated the test's purpose: "It's no longer testing the ability to succeed in law school. Instead it's trying to find out which blind person can train and work with a reader on the spur of the moment."
There you have the story as it appeared in April. The case is now scheduled to go to trial in late December. Depositions are currently being taken, so, assuming that no postponements take place--always a large assumption--we can hope for an early decision in this matter.