Cathryn Bonnette has won her first legal battle: earning the right to practice law in Washington, D.C.
On July 13th, Bonnette won her case against the D.C. Court of Appeals and the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), earning the right to take the exam with her chosen form of technology. She then passed the test, according to the Memorandum Opinion for the case that she filed with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Bonnette is a legally blind law school graduate in Arlington, Virginia who sought to take the Multistate Bar Exam in July using a computer with the accessible screen-reading program Job Access With Speech (JAWS), according to the decision filed by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.
The NCBE had offered Bonnette a human reader or audio CD, which she said violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the case, she found human readers to be humiliating and distracting and was unfamiliar with using audio CDs for an exam.
The NCBE said it was unable to accommodate Bonnette’s request due to “examination security” issues and the cost of writing new questions if repetitive components of the test are compromised, the lawsuit said. The NCBE spends $300,000 to develop each unique test.
Bonnette, whose vision has declined over the past thirty years due to retinopathy, graduated law school in 2003. She took the bar exam four times in California with the NCBE’s standardized accommodations and failed, according to the lawsuit. Bonnette could not be reached for comment.
Kollar-Kotelly wrote in the decision, “Practicing law is Bonnette’s dream and chosen professional goal, and she is unwilling to accept inaccurate assessments of her actual abilities based on her capacity to read using methods other than her primary reading method.”
In July 2011, she took the six-hour test consisting of 200 questions and two additional segments with JAWS and was sworn in to the District of Columbia Bar on December 5th, according to the judge’s statement and the D.C. Bar. Her win marks the end of an eight-year battle against the NCBE in both California and D.C.
The NCBE says it offers students with disabilities “reasonable testing accommodations.”
“Applicants with diagnosed physical, mental, sensory or learning disabilities may request accommodations such as a reader, someone to record answers, a separate testing room, stop-the-clock breaks, and/or extra testing time. Presentation of the material in Braille, large-print, or audio formats is also available. Applicants approved for large-print test materials may request 18-point or 24-point type,” the NCBE says on its website.
Bonnette’s preferred technology, JAWS, is a Microsoft screen reader program enabling users to access text-to-speech communication or a Braille display. According to the complaint, “JAWS software allows Bonnette to use key commands to quickly and easily navigate through a document independently, skim text, jump to a particular section or passage in a document, repeat a word or sentence, spell words, control the reading speed and have independent, non-visual access to reading in a manner that mimics the experience she enjoyed before she lost her vision.”
This article was written for Able News