Blind Would-Be Law Student Says Test Discriminates

Originally published on June 15, 2011 8:30 pm

A prospective law school student in Michigan is suing the American Bar Association over a case he argues is truly a matter of blind justice. The student says he is being denied access to top-tier law schools because of a test he says no one who's blind could possibly pass.

The Law School Admission Test, commonly known as the LSAT, typically features more than a dozen questions where test takers are strongly encouraged to draw out a written diagram to solve the problem.

Law school hopeful Angelo Binno was born blind and has overcome many obstacles. But, the 28-year-old says, he could not overcome the low test scores he kept getting when taking the LSAT. And, because of those scores, he was rejected by the three law schools he applied to.

"I can't work any harder. I can't study any harder. I can't figure it out, because I can't draw out a diagram like a sighted person can to figure out the answers to these questions," Binno says.

Binno is no slouch. He graduated from his high school a year early, had an internship at a law firm after graduating and speaks three languages. He also worked for the Department of Homeland Security before funding cutbacks led to a layoff.

But Binno says he was stymied in his attempt to become a lawyer because the American Bar Association requires law schools to use a "valid and reliable" admissions test. Only the LSAT qualifies.

"The ABA is supposed to be standing up for justice," he says. "What are they standing for in this situation? I'm not saying that I should receive an automatic entrance into law school. All I'm saying is, give me a level playing field," he says.

Binno turned to a sympathetic friend for help.

Attorney Richard Bernstein is blind, but he says he received a waiver to enter law school 15 years ago. Shortly thereafter, the ABA revised its standards and, Bernstein claims, threatened to penalize schools that gave too many waivers or did not use the LSAT.

Now, Bernstein is suing the ABA, arguing that the LSAT violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"They are basically forcing U.S. law schools to break federal law by requiring applicants to take an illegal exam. The Americans with Disabilities Act is very clear about this," Bernstein says. "It is illegal to require someone to take an exam which, on its face, is discriminatory."

In a written statement, the ABA says it requires universities it accredits to conform to federal law, and that accommodations are made for people with disabilities.

Those who have judged law school applications, like Wayne State University Professor David Moss, say some universities do accept students with low LSAT scores. But, Moss says, the company creating the LSAT directs that tests given with special accommodations — like those granted to blind students — should not be given the same weight as regular LSATs.

"They've got this flag on it that screams out, 'Beware of this test result, it could be dangerous to your health,'" Moss says.

Schools are concerned it might damage their rankings — and prestige — in the annual ratings by U.S. News and World Report.

Donald Polden, dean of Santa Clara University Law School, leads an ABA committee reviewing accreditation standards. He says the ABA does grant some schools exemptions from using the LSAT, but top-tier programs don't want to risk their rankings.

"The stories are legend about a five- or six-position swing in a school has caused the loss of jobs of administrators or students to flee for other law schools," he says.

Polden says many on his committee think the ABA should eliminate the use of the LSAT as a prerequisite to enter any law school.

In the meantime, Angelo Binno waits for his day in court — not as the attorney he hopes he'll eventually become, but as a plaintiff arguing that his disability should not prevent him from reaching the top ranks of his chosen profession.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Justice is supposed to be blind. But a student says leading law schools discriminate against him because he is blind. The student says he cannot get into the most selective schools because they require a high score on a test that he claims is impossible for people with his disability. And he is suing the American Bar Association. Here's Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit.

QUINN KLINEFELTER: Law school hopeful Angelo Binno was born blind and has overcome many obstacles. But the 28-year-old says he could not overcome the low test scores he kept getting when taking the L-SAT. And because of those scores he was rejected by the three law schools he applied to.

ANGELO BINNO: But I can't work any harder. I can't study any harder. I can't figure it out because I can't draw out a diagram like a sighted person can to figure out the answers to these questions.

KLINEFELTER: Binno is no slouch. He graduated his high school a year early, interned at a law firm after graduating, and speaks three languages. He also worked for Homeland Security before funding cutbacks led to a lay-off. But Binno says he was stymied in his attempt to become a lawyer because the American Bar Association - the ABA - requires law schools to use a, quote, "valid and reliable" admissions test. And only the L-SAT qualifies.

BINNO: The ABA's supposed to be standing up for justice. What are they standing for in this situation? I'm not saying that I should receive an automatic entrance into law school. All I'm saying is give me a level playing field.

KLINEFELTER: Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) Bernstein law firm, how can we help you?

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING PHONE)

KLINEFELTER: Attorney Richard Bernstein is blind, but says he received a waiver to enter law school 15 years ago. Bernstein says shortly thereafter the ABA revised its standards and, Bernstein claims, threatened to penalize schools that gave too many waivers or did not use the L-SAT. Now Bernstein is suing the ABA, arguing the L-SAT violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

RICHARD BERNSTEIN: They are basically forcing U.S. law schools to break federal law by requiring applicants to take an illegal exam. The Americans with Disabilities Act is very clear about this. It is illegal to require someone to take an exam which on its face is discriminatory.

KLINEFELTER: Those who've judged law school applications, like Wayne State University Professor David Moss, say some universities do accept students with low L-SAT scores. But Moss adds that the company creating the L-SAT directs that tests given with special accommodations - like those granted to blind students - should not be given the same weight as regular L-SATs.

DAVID MOSS: They've got this flag on it that screams out beware of this test result, it could be dangerous to your health.

KLINEFELTER: Santa Clara University Law School Dean Donald Polden chairs an ABA committee reviewing accreditation standards. He says the ABA does grant some schools exemptions from using the L-SAT - but the top-tier programs don't want to risk their rankings.

DONALD POLDEN: The stories are legion about a five or six position swing in a school has caused the loss of jobs of administrators or students to flee for other law schools.

KLINEFELTER: For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.