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Blind Test Taker Favored in Suit Over Bar Exam

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A legally blind lawyer can take the California Bar exam using a computer equipped with software that speaks text, a federal judge ruled.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners had initially agreed to let Timothy Elder take two of the exam's three parts on a computer, but wanted to provide him with a live reader to for the multi-state bar exam portion, which is not available in an electronic format. The examiners said the live reader constituted "sufficient and reasonable accommodation," but Elder, who graduated from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 2010, said the technology is "vastly inferior" to the computer program he requested.

Elder, who was not always blind, has not used braille from an early age. He filed suit against the bar examiners to use a magnification program called Job Access With Speech (JAWS) to take the bar exam. "JAWS is a 'screen reader' software program that vocalizes text and allows the user to navigate through text, controlling the speed, volume, and timber of vocalization, while providing audio cues to indicate spatial and navigational elements of a text," according to the court's 17-page ruling. Elder says he used the program on law school exams and has been certified by an accessibility specialist as an "advanced to expert" JAWS software user.

Though Elder successfully took part of the Maryland exam using the "vastly inferior" screen reader, he says doing so put him at a competitive disadvantage.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of California's Northern District ruled on Feb. 16 that Elder and NCBE "shall agree on the security protocols necessary to provide Elder a computer equipped with JAWS" for the 2011 California Multistate Bar Exam.

Illston's ruling conforms to a 9th Circuit ruling handed down last month, which ordered the examiners to adapt their test for a different blind law school graduate.

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