Future Reflections Special Issue: Technology
by Sean Whalen
Reprinted from The Student Slate, Spring 2012
From the Editor: Sean Whalen currently serves as the president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS). In October 2011 he took the LSAT, receiving an excellent score of 173 out of a possible 180 points. Before he took the test, however, he worked for nearly a year and a half to get the accommodations he needed.
Ever since Mrs. Regal, my first-grade teacher, asked each of us to say what we might like to be when we grew up, I have said that I want to be a lawyer. Of course, at age seven, that desire was probably driven by the fact that my mom frequently suggested that the law would be the profession for me, due to my argumentative nature and my tendency to want to know the reason for everything. However, as I worked my way through high school and political science and philosophy degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my passion for public policy, politics, and the law continued to grow. A brief stint as a governmental affairs intern at the NFB national headquarters in Baltimore and my subsequent work as a lobbyist on education, health, and disability issues in Washington, DC served to solidify these interests. I knew I wanted to spend my professional life as a lawyer, advocate, or policymaker. In each of these professions a law degree is required or, at the very least, can come in handy. In the spring of 2010 I started trudging down the road to law school.
The primary obstacle--aside, perhaps, from the hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs associated with a legal education--standing between anybody wishing to attend an ABA-accredited law school and their actual acceptance and enrollment is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which is administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The LSAT is a standardized exam designed to test critical thinking, logical reasoning, and reading comprehension, all skills supposed to be of value to lawyers.
I have yet to meet anybody, myself included, who was not at least a little bit intimidated by the prospect of taking the LSAT. After all, performance on this one test, taken on a Saturday morning, plays a large role in determining what law schools one can expect to be accepted into. Equally important, it determines what kind of merit-based financial aid one might be offered by interested schools. Taking the LSAT is a stressful experience for everybody who goes through it. However, being almost totally blind, I had to grapple with two additional issues to ensure that I performed up to my potential. The first was how to tackle the logic games section, on which students customarily draw diagrams to assist in answering the questions. The second was how to get the LSAC to grant me the accommodations I needed to compete on an even playing field with my fellow test-takers.
The LSAT is composed of three types of questions. One section focuses on reading comprehension; test-takers are required to answer multiple choice questions analyzing the reasoning and method of argumentation in various passages taken from scholarly articles. The second section involves logical reasoning questions. Test-takers are asked questions about short, two- or three-sentence arguments. For example, one may be asked to identify the logical flaw in a given argument, or to choose which of a list of facts would strengthen or weaken a particular argument. It was clear to me that, if I used JAWS for Windows to read the test passages and questions, blindness would present no difficulties with these sections of the test. However, the logic games portion of the test required a little more thought.
In the logic games section, test-takers are presented with a task, such as putting a group of people in a sequential line. They are then provided with a list of conditions that must apply to the task. For instance, Sue is next to Jason in line, Jason is not last in line, etc. Sighted students rely heavily on the creation of diagrams to represent the information they are given in a readily accessible format. The picture approach was not available to me. After considering numerous alternatives--such as using tactile objects to represent entities in the problems, or using a Braillewriter to create a tactile diagram--I stumbled upon a simple solution. I experimented with using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to put the entities in spatial relation to one another and create my own kind of "diagram." After a little work, I dramatically improved my scores on practice logic games sections. I was certain this was the way to go, but I was unsure whether the LSAC would permit me to use this method. I had heard from multiple LSAT veterans that the LSAC was notoriously difficult about granting accommodations, especially those outside the norm.
I intended to take the test in October 2010, so I began working through the accommodations process in May of that year. Five months, I thought, would be ample time to check the requisite boxes and get set up to take the October test. However, it wasn't quite as easy as I had hoped.
After registering with the LSAC, signing up for the October test, and providing documentation from an ophthalmologist indicating that I am in fact blind, I filled out the form to request the specific accommodations I was seeking on the test. I wasn't surprised to see that the use of Microsoft Excel for logic games was not listed as an option. I was surprised, and quite concerned, to see that the only alternative formats listed as options for reading the test questions were Braille and large print. I am one of those many blind students who was deprived of a complete and proper education by never having been taught to read Braille. Having achieved speeds of only 90 words per minute at my peak as an adult learner, the Braille test was not an option for me. And print, no matter how large, was surely not going to help. The LSAC offered the option of having a reader read the test aloud, but that was certainly not what I wanted to do. Many people are proficient and comfortable using live readers, but I am not one of them, especially when it comes to reading long or dense passages for comprehension. JAWS or a similar screen reading program gives me direct control of the information. I have access in a way that is not possible with a human reader, a way that much more closely approximates reading print or Braille.
Since age sixteen I had done virtually all of my reading for school, work, and leisure on a computer with JAWS. Asking me to take the highest-stakes test of my life with a tool to which I was not accustomed struck me as fundamentally unfair. If a sighted student were told that his only option was to have somebody read the test aloud to him rather than reading it himself, the idea would be completely unacceptable. The idea was just as unacceptable to me.
So, along with my request forms and supporting documentation, I submitted a letter to the accommodations department of the LSAC. I requested to be granted the use of a laptop computer with Microsoft Excel and JAWS, as well as the opportunity to take the test in an electronic format. Some weeks later I received an email from the LSAC. The message indicated that my accommodations request had been approved. I could log into my LSAC account to view the accommodations confirmation letter. Eagerly I signed into my account and pulled up the document. The LSAC had granted the use of Excel. Unfortunately, however, the format of the test was listed as regular print, and a reader was added as an accommodation. There was not even any acknowledgment that I had requested something that hadn't been granted. Thus I launched into my first encounter with the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Law School Admission Council.
After being transferred around a bit, I finally got somebody on the phone who worked in the accommodations department. I asked if they had been aware of my request to take the test in an electronic format. She said they had. I asked if they had denied the request. She said they had. I asked why. She informed me that they don't offer an electronic format. I politely suggested that this wasn't much of an explanation, at which point she informed me that if I was unhappy with the decision, I could appeal it. So I did. I wrote a lengthy appeal letter, outlining exactly why the electronic format would be the best way to test me on the skills that the test purports to measure, and not on my ability to interact with and direct an unfamiliar reader. I explained at length the inherent unfairness of denying me the opportunity to read the test in the same way I read all my coursework and tests in college and all the reading material I am required to access for my job. I also alerted the LSAC to the fact that I was personally aware of other blind students who had been granted the opportunity to take an electronic version of the test.
After waiting another few weeks, I received a new accommodations letter posted to my account. The letter was only new in the sense that it had a different date at the top. That aside, it was absolutely identical to the one that was posted a month earlier--the same denial, the same lack of any explanation whatsoever. I decided I might need some help.
Through a blind friend who is currently a third-year law student, I contacted a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco, who had helped her with similar accommodations issues on the LSAT. The lawyer, Claudia Center, graciously agreed to assist me on a pro bono basis. She warned me that if I wanted to commit to the fight, it might mean that I wouldn't be able to take the test in the 2010 cycle or apply to law school for the fall of 2011. I thought it was a fight worth having, for my own sake and also for the sake of any blind students after me who would want the opportunity to take an electronic version of the test. I told her that I was committed to seeing it through, even if it meant delaying my return to school.
The deadline for the October test having come and gone, I submitted an application identical to that which I had initially submitted for the December test. This time, however, my application was accompanied by a letter from my lawyer, making the legal case for the LSAC's obligation to test me in a way that best measured my abilities in the areas the test was meant to measure--in my case, with an electronic version and JAWS. Much to my disappointment, though admittedly not completely to my surprise, the request was once again denied.
A decision had to be made. Would I take the test using a reader as the LSAC wanted, or would I gear up for a potentially lengthy legal battle? The best score I had ever achieved on a practice test using a reader was a 168. I consistently topped that score by several points when I took practice tests by myself on a computer. On a test that is scored between 120 and 180, a few points are a big deal. In addition to the question of self-interest, I really wanted to see such a ridiculous policy challenged and overturned for future blind test-takers.
I told the lawyer that I wanted to move forward. I also got on the phone with President Marc Maurer of the NFB and informed him of my situation. He told me that the NFB was ready and willing to assist by providing legal support from NFB go-to lawyer, Dan Goldstein. It felt great to know that my Federation family was there to support me.
Fortunately, the long, drawn-out process of taking the case to court turned out not to be necessary. In early 2012 the LSAC did an about-face and decided to allow me to take the test on a computer, using JAWS. What's more, it indicated that it would change the policy and make the same opportunity available to other legally blind students.
Maybe the LSAC saw the writing on the wall, as similar legal questions related to the bar exam had been decided in favor of blind test-takers. Perhaps they just had a sudden change of heart. Regardless, the LSAC agreed to allow me a fair shot at the test by granting me the ability to take it independently. I, of course, was thrilled. I took the October 2011 administration of the test.
The process of fighting for my accommodations meant that I delayed starting law school by a year. Nevertheless, I couldn't be more pleased with the way things worked out. I got a score on the test with which I am very satisfied, and I know that I got it on my own merits. I am also glad to have played a small part in making things easier for blind students who wish to take the test on a computer in the future. I am extremely grateful to Claudia Center from the Legal Aid Society and to Dr. Maurer and the NFB for their support and encouragement throughout the process. I must also express my gratitude to the folks at the LSAC who were responsible for creating the electronic format of the test. They did an excellent job of making the test easily navigable with a screen reader, and they actively solicited feedback from me on the usability of the test.
This whole experience has reinforced for me how important it is for us to advocate for what we, as blind students, need to compete on an even footing with our sighted peers. We can't always do it all alone, but it is absolutely necessary for each of us to stand up and tell people what we need to be successful and why we need it. Whether it be in dealing with professors, vocational rehabilitation counselors, disability services offices, or those who administer standardized tests, we must all be our own best advocates.