Yalie wins disability lawsuit

A Yale School of Medicine student affected by dyslexia will receive special testing accommodations for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination after he was denied them twice.

Frederick Romberg MED ’12 will receive double the standard testing time and a separate testing area to take the examination as a result of a settlement reached by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Board of Medical Examiners Feb. 22. in accordance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The settlement requires the board to provide reasonable testing accommodations to persons with disabilities who seek to take the test, a press release issued by the DOJ on February 22, 2011 stated. Romberg’s case, which was initially filed in January 2008 when the board refused Romberg’s request, has national implications for medical students with disabilities because it has introduced new guidelines for the administration of standardized exams.

“The settlement will change my life because I am confident that I will be able to do well on the exam now,” Romberg said. “I’m not the only one who’s had these problems across the country. It gives me great pleasure to know that other people in my situation will receive similar accommodations.”

Romberg said he first requested accommodations for testing in January 2008, but that his appeals were subsequently denied twice.

The purpose of the accommodations is to ensure that any examination, written or oral, is an accurate measure of an individual’s ability to demonstrate their knowledge, and not a measure of their medical condition, said Sally E. Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at the medical school.

“This settlement confirms and reaffirms that a person who is dyslexic can have high academic achievement but still be affected by the disability,” she said.

Shaywitz, who co-directs the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, said that dyslexia is defined as an unexpected difficulty in reading, in relation to a particular person.

Normally, reading and intelligence are dynamically linked: someone who can read well usually has a high level of intelligence. But in individuals with dyslexia, Shaywitz said, someone can be highly intelligent while still experiencing reading difficulties. Since reading is based on speaking, dyslexic individuals have a harder time accessing sounds based on words, even though they understand the meaning behind the words, she said.

“The ability to read varies very much for people with dyslexia because it’s harder for those affected — a striking one in five people — to read automatically,” Shaywitz said. “Sometimes it takes them twice as long, sometimes one and half times, to process the information contained in a passage.”

According to the DOJ press release, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said that in the past, demands for unnecessary documentation, professional evaluations or evaluative testing prevented individuals with confirmed disabilities from pursuing their chosen professions.

Now, under the new agreement, the board will only request documentation about the existence of a physical or mental impairment in an applicant, whether the applicant’s impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities, and whether the impairment limits the applicant’s ability to take the test under standard conditions. Additionally the board will have to consider the recommendations of qualified professionals who have personally observed the applicant in a clinical setting.

“Too many people like Frederick have seen their hard work disregarded and their career paths disrupted,” Shaywitz said. “What testing agencies have tended to do is ask for a whole panoply of information and testing that wasn’t relevant for determining who had a disability. At the very least, the settlement acknowledges that it’s important to give careful consideration to the medical history of the specific individual who’s being evaluated.”

School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said Yale has not heard of any previous complaints about appropriate testing conditions for its students before, but added that the University does not administer these standardized tests and is thus not in a position to receive complaints.

Shaywitz said that Yale stands out as a place that understands dyslexia scientifically and provides support for students with the condition like Romberg’s.

“I don’t think that I could’ve gone to a more supportive place, a place that is more accepting of my dyslexia,” Romberg said. “It’s been a long road but I want people to know how much I appreciate the support from faculty like Professor Shaywitz. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

The settlement was reached under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by private testing entities that administer examinations related to professional licensing. The new regulations applicable to testing accommodations will go into effect on March 15, 2011.

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