Hollow victory for reading disability student

October 2, 1998

A United States court has sided with a student who claims she has a reading disability and should have been given extra time to complete the examination for her lawyer's licence.

Marilyn Bartlett, a law school graduate from New York who failed the test four times, asked for more time to take the exam and permission to record her essays on tape instead of writing them down. She also wanted to circle answers in the test book rather than use a computerised answer sheet.

Ms Bartlett sued the New York Board of Law Examiners in 1993 when it refused these requests after an outside expert disputed her claim that she suffered from a reading disorder.

The federal appeal court ruled that the board's decision was based on an arbitrary definition of disability. It said her requests for special consideration would have "enable(d) her to compete fairly with others in taking the examination".

Licensing officials said the ruling would encourage people to use disability claims as an excuse for poor academic performance. They also complained that it would be difficult to weed out such people without the help of outside experts.

Meanwhile, the board allowed Ms Bartlett to retake the licensing exam for a fifth time after she filed suit, agreeing to her requests for special treatment. She failed.

Disabilities advocates, who have suffered setbacks in other cases challenging special treatment, called the ruling in the trial an important victory.

In another recent lawsuit, a federal judge dismissed a demand by a group of learning-disabled students that they be exempted from a foreign-language requirement at Boston University, although the university was forced to pay more than $1 million to the students' lawyers.

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