MIDDLESEX, Vt. – Deanna Jones, a third-year law student who's legally blind and learning disabled, has won her first big court case: her own.
Jones sued the National Conference of Bar Examiners in July, accusing it of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by refusing to let her take a key legal ethics exam using a computer with screen access software that she has used to read in college and in law school.
Armed with a federal judge's order, she was able to take the test Friday, closely watched by a proctor, test supervisor and someone from the ACT, Inc. testing company, she said.
"I think I did OK," she said. "I left feeling like I probably passed it."
Jones, who attends Vermont Law School with hopes of practicing disability law, needs the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam to practice in Vermont. The NCBE fought her request and plans to appeal, saying the security of its pencil-and-paper test could be jeopardized if taken electronically. The organization had offered instead to have someone read the test to Jones, to let her take the test in Braille, in enlarged print, and use an audio CD.
But a judge ruled Tuesday that the examiners had to provide her a laptop equipped with the special software. Jones said she was "just emotionally overcome" when she finally sat down for the exam.
"I just sort of broke into a fit of bawling for a moment," she said Friday afternoon, after nearly six hours of testing. "It was unbelievable to me what it had taken just to be able to sit in that chair," she said.
Dan Goldstein, a Baltimore-based lawyer for Jones and the National Federation of the Blind, said he's been involved with four other similar cases, three of which have been successful, resulting in preliminary injunctive relief. The federation paid Jones' legal bills.
Her lawyer, Emily Joselson of Middlebury, said federal disability rules and laws require that examiners "provide the accommodations that best ensure that the test taker's results on the exam will reflect the substantive knowledge that's being tested and not their disabilities."
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss said in a 26-page decision that "reasonable accommodations" for Jones were not enough and without the laptop and software Jones had requested "the MPRE will primarily test her ability to work through her disabilities and that she will not be able to compete on an equal basis with non-disabled test takers."
NCBE, based in Madison, Wis., did not return a phone call seeking comment. Court papers show the nonprofit corporation is seeking to withhold Jones' score.
Reiss questioned NCBE's priorities.
"The public interest compels the court to order accommodations that will best ensure a disabled person's access to a professional exam that will, in part, determine whether he or she may practice a chosen profession," she wrote.
"The public's interest in the integrity of secure, professional licensing exams while important and legitimate does not trump the ADA," Reiss wrote.
Jones' disabilities have long been tested. Legally blind since she was 5 and not diagnosed with a learning disability until she was in her 30s, Jones described her public school years in Hightstown, N.J., as a "rough ride." What got her through? "My mom," she said.
I'd come home from a school a mess, you know, just crying at the table," she said.
Her mother, Elaine Jones, would get her organized and help her through the work.
But Jones dropped out of college after high school with a GPA of .92 after one year.
She went on to start a record store and later to run the food service at the Statehouse in Montpelier.
In her 30s, everything changed. She learned that in addition to macular degeneration in each eye — depriving her of centralized vision and preventing her from seeing anything other than peripheral objects — she also had atypical retinitis pigmentosa, eyesight-threatening damage to her retina that causes loss of peripheral vision.
"What's important about that is that meant I wasn't just going to lose my central vision, I was going to lose all of my vision," she said at her Middlesex home.
She also discovered that she had a learning disability.
In early 2000, Jones learned about the computer software programs that allowed her to read and return to college: The ZoomText Magnifier/Reader, which magnifies text, and Kurzweil 3000 screen reader, which reads the text aloud and highlights sentences and words that she can follow with a cursor.
Until then the only book she'd gotten through was a large-print edition of "The Diary of Anne Frank," which she used for every book report she wrote.
"So when I got to Vermont College with this particular software and I could scan any book in the world and read it. It was just unbelievable.
"It was the first time in my life I was able to read books and it just opened up the whole world," she said, with tears welling in her eyes. "It was so amazing."
She read literature classics — "Moby Dick," ''The Great Gatsby," and "Anna Karenina" as well as psychology and books in myriad subjects, enough for her to get a liberal arts degree.
"I couldn't read until I was in my 30s. It's a big deal," she said.
While she was an undergraduate, she studied the Americans with Disabilities Act, rekindling her childhood dream of going to law school, she said.
She's not sure exactly what she'll do as a lawyer. She thinks about working with colleges and professional schools, giving sensitivity training about people with disabilities and how to accommodate them.
For now, she expects another fight next year when she takes the Vermont bar exam — which also comes without technology. She hasn't yet inquired about special accommodations to take that test.
So far, she's got the grades to prove her success.
"I have a 3.28 GPA. And if I get a 3.5 by next semester or even in the following semester, I can graduate cum laude. And I am dying to graduate cum laude," she said.