By Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle
A blind Bay Area law graduate was entitled to use computer-assisted reading devices that gave her the best chance of passing the California bar exam, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in a broad interpretation of disability laws.
The decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco gives Stephanie Enyart another chance to use the computer equipment when she takes the exam for the third time next month.
The court also upheld U.S. Justice Department regulations that require all companies administering licensing tests - for lawyers, doctors, and other professions and occupations - to provide accommodations that best allow the disabled to demonstrate their skill and knowledge.
Those rules help to ensure that "exam results accurately reflect aptitude rather than disabilities," Judge Barry Silverman said in the 3-0 ruling. It was the nation's first court decision to address the regulations, enacted in 1992.
Anna Levine of Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, a lawyer for Enyart, said the ruling gives the disabled "an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge."
But a lawyer for the nonprofit National Conference of Bar Examiners, which administers the California test, said the court had gone too far.
"A testing organization should not be put to the requirement of providing whatever the latest technology calls for," attorney Robert Burgoyne said. He said the 1992 regulations could give some test-takers an unfair advantage and raise questions about the validity of licensing exams.
Enyart, who has worked as a law clerk at Disability Rights Advocates, suffers from macular degeneration and retinal dystrophy and was declared legally blind at 15. At UCLA Law School, where she graduated in 2009, she took tests on a laptop with software that magnified the text and read the words into earbuds.
The bar exam company refused to let her use those devices, saying they might give hackers access to the test questions. The company said its usual aides for the visually impaired - an enlarged screen, a reader and twice the usual three-day testing period - satisfied the law's requirement of reasonable accommodations for the disabled.
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