Four graduates of California law schools with disabilities filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against the State Bar of California for its alleged inability to provide fair and equitable accommodations.
The four graduates filing the complaint, Clarena Arbelaez, JR, RC and Berkeley Law alumna Rosa Rico, alleged that the State Bar refused to authorize accommodations that students received in other standardized testing settings, such as additional time or ergonomic desks, according to legal director for Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and attorney for claimants Claudia Center. The State Bar referred to its own consultants for evaluating candidates throughout the testing process, which Center alleged allowed for bias against testing accommodations. Claimants alleged that the State Bar did not respond to accommodation requests in an appropriate time frame.
The claims were set forth under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and Section 12189, which Center said outline standards for testing accommodations.
“We hear from people fairly often about the State Bar center to provide accommodations, this is a systemic issue,” said Wolinsky Fellowship Attorney and attorney for claimants Amelia Evard. “That’s one reason that we’re asking the DOJ to investigate and it’s really important for people to have equal and equitable access to the bar exam.”
Arbelaez used the speech-to-text software Dragon for legal work, school and in her first bar exam because of her orthopedic disabilities, according to Center. Arbelaez experiences hand pain when writing for extended periods, causing her to take breaks which creates complications when it comes to the essay portion of the bar exam. The State Bar initially told Arbelaez she could not use Dragon for the exam, according to Center, but after Arbelaez wrote a letter explaining her circumstances, the Bar approved her accommodation last-minute. Arbelaez passed her bar exam in February 2022.
JR had a similar experience, except he was not granted any accommodations during the bar exam in February, Center said. JR experiences numbness due to nerve damage and required frequent breaks from the exam to use the restroom. Additionally, after failing the exam, he noticed his scores suffered the most in the writing portions of the exam, where he typically relied on Dragon and other ergonomic equipment.
“The bar exam is something that people need to pass to be a licensed attorney and if it’s not accessible, that is impacting whether disabled people can become attorneys, which is detrimental to our legal field,” Evard said.
Center said there needs to be a culture change surrounding accommodation requests and management at the State Bar, including in leadership and personnel, training policies and practices for greater ADA compliance for staff. The complaints also push for greater diversity in the board of consultants to limit bias toward testing accommodations and yield new perspectives.
As the disabled community makes up a considerable portion of the population, Center noted it is “critical” to include people with disabilities in the legal profession, in positions of state court judges, federal court judges and beyond.
“We need people with all different statuses to believe and to trust that the legal profession will serve them, will serve them fairly, will be designed with their interests in mind, and so on, and to do that we need to integrate and diversify the legal profession,” Center said.
The State Bar of California declined to comment on the pending litigation.