The state bar will let Stephanie Enyart use software on two portions of the… (Randi Lynn Beach/For The…)
As if Stephanie Enyart wasn't stressed enough when she took the Law School Admissions Test, the man hired by the exam administrators to read the questions to the legally blind Berkeley woman turned up sick.
He sneezed and coughed. The words came out in a nasal mumble. He interrupted his reading every few minutes to blow his nose, use the restroom or get tea to ease his congestion. Even though she was allotted double time to compensate for her disability, Enyart said her score also suffered because she was denied the use of her computer software programs that magnify text and convert it to speech heard through an ear bud.
Enyart, however, did well enough to get into UCLA Law School and graduated this spring. But now she faces another testing hurdle. The National Conference of Bar Examiners has denied her the use of computer programs to take a segment of the California bar exam it controls, insisting she use a human reader.
Enyart, 32, has sued the national conference, charging a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act that prohibit discrimination against the disabled.
"This is a high-stakes environment, and I want to bring all of my comprehensive faculties to the occasion," Enyart said of the bar exam that will determine whether she gets a license to practice law. "To use a human reader or the visual accommodations they have offered just simply doesn't meet my disability needs. It would be like trying to run a race in someone else's shoes."
Two parts of the exam are under the control of the State Bar of California, which has relented in its earlier refusal to let vision-impaired candidates use computer tools. But the third part -- 200 questions, multiple-choice -- is controlled by the national conference, which requires a human reader chosen by the test administrator.
Enyart isn't the only aspiring lawyer fighting to get the standardized testing industry to catch up with technology for the disabled.
Michael Witwer, who expects to graduate from Catholic University of America's law school in the spring, last month took the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, a separate test required for admission to the bar in most states. He passed with a mediocre score that he believes would have been much higher had he been able to use computer programs rather than the human reader imposed by the administrator.
"I have a 7-year-old son who is a better reader," Witwer, 42, said of the reader who commented on the big words in the questions and stumbled with the pronunciation of such words as "constitutional."
The National Conference of Bar Examiners allowed three blind test-takers to take the multi-state bar exam in July in a pilot program using the software that reads text aloud to the user, said Larry Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates, the Berkeley firm representing Enyart.
An internal report assessed the pilot program as successful, Paradis said, adding that his office received a copy after filing Enyart's lawsuit. Still, the national group has refused to allow the same accommodations for the bar exam in February that Enyart plans to take.
One of the pilot test-takers, Ben Karpilow of Santa Rosa, was a "visual learner," like Enyart, having lost his sight six years ago. Karpilow, 32, said the software was "pivotal in my passing the exam the first time."
"Doing it with a [human] reader is just unreliable and it's awkward and it's not the way blind people are working in their profession these days," said the graduate of Empire College School of Law.
National Conference of Bar Examiners President Erica Moeser said she had no comment on the lawsuit or whether the organization is considering new accommodations following the pilot test. The group will respond to Enyart's suit in a filing due in January, she said.
Scott Gomer, a spokesman for ACT, the company that administered the test Witwer took, would only say that it gives the test under contract with the national conference.
About 500 blind or vision-impaired lawyers are in practice in the United States, said Scott LaBarre, a Denver attorney and president of the National Assn. of Blind Lawyers, which is supporting Enyart's lawsuit. Most rely in their work on the type of equipment Enyart wants to use in taking the bar, he said.
LaBarre said he believes the group does not want to appear partial to certain groups.
"Some entities are just historically reluctant to try something new, reluctant to provide accommodations out of concern that too many would give an examinee some sort of advantage," said LaBarre, who argues the software programs are an equalizing factor at best.
The Law School Admissions Council that administers the LSAT now allows vision-impaired test-takers to use tools such as those Enyart would like to have had at hand: Programs that magnify the written word and display it in white letters on a black background. The background reduces the pain of her extreme light sensitivity in what is left of her peripheral vision, she said.
Paradis expects that national bar exam administrators will embrace the opportunities for the disabled that are now possible through technology.
"They hold her career in their hands," he said. "If you don't pass the bar, you have wasted three to four years of your life and you can't do your profession that you worked so hard to do."