The Law School Admission Test (LSAT), by its own nature as an exam, is an obstacle that any student must overcome if they wish to progress to a career in the legal world. But for students with disabilities, obtaining the necessary accommodations presents yet another hurdle for them; something intended to make the process accessible too often becomes wrapped up in bureaucracy, litigation, or short-sightedness. There are various accounts of students and the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) having a courtroom jousting competition when Council administration fails to accommodate a person’s disability. But let’s not get too hasty and make LSAC out to be the Grinch who stole Christmas.
Accommodations are tools and practises that allow persons with disabilities to perform the same tasks as everyone else. For the LSAT, these may include extra time, large print or Braille formats, a reader or assistant, a separate room, and extra rest. In some cases, students can request to have food or drinks depending on their needs.
There have been some requests that were, let’s say, more unusual.
Back in 2004, Brian Carlise took LSAC before a BC tribunal, citing that he was denied his right to smoke marijuana during the exam. The plaintiff had a physical disability that required him to take medicinal marijuana for treatment. LSAC argued that because they operate outside the jurisdiction of the province, (they were based in Delaware), the LSAT, a non-for-profit property, isn’t liable. Nevertheless, the presiding tribunal concluded that because the LSAT is administered within provincial jurisdiction, provincial legislation still applies. Nonetheless, Carlise had to drop the case, but he still managed to prove that provincial jurisdiction applies to the LSAT.
This case was referred to when Emma Arenson, a Master’s student at the University of Western Ontario, had her own run in with the Council. Arenson has dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder, and among the things she requested for her exam were a computer, extra time, and a reader. However, she wasn’t granted all the accommodations she needed. “It’s like if you’re eating spaghetti and they give you a spoon but no fork,” she illustrates. “Partial accommodations aren’t actually accommodations, just an extra thing to carry around in your hands.”
After numerous attempts of trying to learn from LCAT why she was denied and what she could do to obtain her accommodations, it became clear that she wouldn’t be given the assistance she needed. Eventually, she decided to get an Ontario human rights tribunal involved. Using tactic after tactic and much negotiation with LCAT, Arenson eventually chose not to rewrite the LSAT with full accommodations, but instead used the results she already attained with partial accommodations that, thankfully, still allowed her to get into Law school.
One concern is how accommodations on a standardized test can translate into the field.
When students with disabilities enter their careers and are faced with real life scenarios in their profession, they may not always be permitted the extra time or more breaks in, say, a court room setting. However, in many industries, including for legal professionals, accommodations don’t need to be that big an issue. “The real world is the world you make it,” says Arenson, “and law is such a wide field. Not everybody chooses to be a litigator, not everybody chooses to work in a court room. Some people are mediators, some people work in [other legal fields].” When it comes to the court system she explains that, depending on how understanding the judge is and the time sensitivity of case, there is some flexibility; the LSAT, as far as she’s concerned, doesn’t have that same flexibility.
Michelle Morgan-Coole, a lawyer and advocate for people with disabilities, adds that although she may not personally know anyone in the legal field with a learning disability, it may well be simply because she’s not aware that the person has one. She explains that much of it is about learning strategies for yourself that allow you to do what you do. “I think when you get to the point where you’re practicing law,” she says, “you know the accommodations that you need, you may not even consider them accommodations anymore; it’s just the way you do things — what you need to do to make it work.” Once you learn how to cope with it, a disability isn’t something you need to publicise.
Standardized exams like the GRE and SAT don’t flag test results, meaning they don’t indicate when a test was written with accommodations. However, the LSAT remains among the few that still do. This doesn’t sit too well many students with disabilities. According to Arenson, it was decided around the early 2000s that flagging doesn’t allow a better interpretation of test results. “[…] if you received extra time on your test and its flagged, it’s not put in with the standard pool, and as such you don’t receive a percentile score,” says Arenson. “It doesn’t allow you to see where you sat; it singles you out and forces you to disclose your disability. Your test scores are taken out of the average and treated differently. You’re made to feel negatively special.”
At least when it comes to employment you shouldn’t have to disclose whether or not you have a disability. But Morgan-Coole points out that this presents a bit of a conundrum. “If you don’t disclose, how are you going to get accommodations, and if you do disclose (maybe not so much in the context of the LSAT), you’re always concerned that it’s going to have a backlash against you. It’s sort of like being between a rock and hard place.”
So what accounts for some of the challenges that people with disabilities are facing?
“Law is a very conservative field,” says Morgan-Coole. “We look back to the 1800s and England to tell us what to do in many ways. But on the other side there’s the fact that this is the legal field. You should be very aware you’re not discriminating against people.” She explains that the problem that students with disabilities face with the LSAT goes beyond the institution. “I would say there’s this attitude that we’ve always done things a certain way, therefore that’s the only way it can be done. And that’s the end of the story without being able to look beyond that. We see that whether we’re [dealing with] elementary schools, and whether we’re dealing with public community services to get someone appropriate residential housing as opposed to being stuck in a nursing home.”
Although LCAT declined to speak with us, it must be said that they have made efforts to reach out to students by improving the understanding of how the accommodation process works and making the test more accessible. Not only does LCAT provide a section on their website with resources such as videos, forms, and demonstrations for accommodated testing, they also have a full team dedicated to LSAT accommodations. They have also done round tables with students with disabilities as well.
Arenson advises that students should make preparations two to three years in advance of the LSAT. That way you’ll have enough time to obtain and organize up to date psychiatric evaluations, assessments, and any other medical documents needed to submit for accommodations. Keep in mind that backlogs can and do happen, and could be up to three years deep, so arranging all your materials certainly isn’t something to be done over the weekend.
No one ever desires for a situation to escalate to the point where it has to be brought before a court or tribunal.
But for Morgan-Coole, she believes that public pressure can sometimes be the most effective method. “I see too much of [when] they give something to one person essentially to shut them up and keep it quiet.” She admits she might be cynical but she dislikes it when another person comes along only to fight the same battle over again. “One person may get accommodations but the next person who comes along is denied. And that’s part of the reason why I like going public, because when you accomplish something for one person, you’re accomplishing it for someone else as well.” Arenson was one of those people; she managed to create a consent order which mandates LCAT to consider a student’s previous accommodation records and medical documentation, as long as said documents aren’t misrepresented.
Nevertheless, responsibility shouldn’t be placed solely on organizations like LCAT. Though Arenson and Sherman may disagree, the Council may sincerely be trying to help their applicants. There should be an equal amount of attention from (and given to) law schools, Bar societies, and society as a whole, to better accommodate individuals. Indeed, it’s a long arduous process, but it’s all about treading through the ankle-deep snow. That way, those who follow may have an easier time on the path you cut.