October 18, 2004

Successful Medical Student With Learning Impairment Not Entitled To Accommodation

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Paul G. Lannon

Since kindergarten, Andrew Wong has suffered from a learning impairment. Since middle school, he regularly received accommodations, including extra time on assignments and examinations. He performed exceptionally well in school, ultimately graduating from college magna cum laude and earning a Master’s degree in cellular/molecular biology.

When it came to medical school, however, things changed. Wong no longer requested any special accommodations, nor did he appear to need them. He passed his admission test, two national board exams and earned better than a “B” average in his first two years without any special assistance. But in his third year, the program shifted to clinical clerkships, and Wong could not keep pace. The school denied his request for an eight-week preparation period and concluded that Wong could not meet the school’s academic standards.

Wong sued, claiming the medical school violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to accommodate his learning disabilities. His case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting in San Francisco. See Wong v. Regents of the University of California. In August, the court ruled in favor of the medical school. Surprised? Perhaps you should not be.

The issue for the court was, “Whether a person who has achieved considerable academic success, beyond the attainment of most people … can nonetheless be found to be ‘substantially limited’ in reading and learning, and thus be entitled to claim the protections afforded under the [ADA].”

The court answered “no.” Wong certainly suffered from a disability which affected the major life activities of reading and learning – two elements of a claim under the ADA — but the case turned on whether Wong’s impairment substantially limited his ability to read and learn.

On that point, the appeals court turned to the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams (2002). In Toyota, the Supreme Court emphasized that the element of substantial limitation was a “demanding standard” which must be “interpreted strictly.” Perhaps more importantly, the Toyota decision focused on a person’s ability to perform “tasks central to most people’s daily lives,” not the unique tasks associated with a specific job.

Accordingly, the Appeals Court reasoned that Wong’s ability to read and learn should not be compared to his “academic peer group” at the medical school but more generally to the “daily life of most people.” As a result, Wong’s claim of substantial impairment “is fatally contradicted by his ability to achieve academic success, without special accommodations.” Wong was “not less able to learn than most people;” his record proves he is able to learn better than most.

Critics charge that the Wong decision unfairly penalizes students who work hard to cope with or overcome their learning impairments. However, overcoming disabilities carries its own rewards. The issue under the ADA is whether a court should compel a school to provide accommodations to a student who has proven that he can perform the tasks at issue as well as or better than the average person. Would granting special assistance in those circumstances be fair to the other students?

Wong can also be read as a victory for academic freedom. The court refused to compel the medical school to change its curriculum or its academic standards. Nor did the court second guess the medical school’s determination that Wong did not satisfy its standards. Claims of disability should not erode these important First Amendment protections for institutions of higher education.

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