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Bar exam prep-class provider settles allegations of discrimination

BarBri Inc., the largest bar prep-course provider in the country, has settled a federal lawsuit alleging the company denied blind students fair access to their products.

The plaintiffs alleged the company’s failure to make its mobile app, website and course materials accessible despite multiple concerns expressed to management. BarBri’s actions prevented blind students from enjoying resources to which they were “contractually entitled” and hindered the students’ abilities to prepare for the bar exam, the lawsuit states.

As part of a consent decree announced this week, BARBRI agreed to update its online products using industry-recognized accessibility guidelines and train staff to make sure they are complying with those standards.

“BarBri continues to be committed to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” spokeswoman Cindy Parks said in a statement. “This settlement reflects a mutually agreeable resolution among the parties and we look forward to continuing to provide the best in bar preparation to all students.”

BarBri’s course features both in-person sessions as well online and mobile resources including practice questions, test guides and real-time feedback and online assessments.

Blind law students enrolled in the bar prep course alleged the company did not offer equal and timely access to its online materials and refused to take corrective steps when notified about this disparity, according to the lawsuit filed in Texas federal court in 2016. The lawsuit claimed the company violated both state and federal discrimination laws.

The plaintiffs were represented by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“The bar exam is the final step for entry into the profession and bar review courses have become an essential part of preparing to take the exam,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, in a statement. “This settlement clears unreasonable and unlawful barriers standing in the way of blind bar exam takers and ensures that the legal profession is open to all.”

Tim Elder, a civil rights litigator in Baltimore who focuses on disability discrimination and is blind himself, said he has seen fluctuation in the accessibility of online programs in general. Elder was one of three blind law school graduates who sued the National Conference of Bar Examiners in federal court in Maryland in 2010 after the exam’s governing body denied their request to use screen test software for the Multistate Bar Examination. (A federal judge denied their motion for an injunction.)

While there have been lawsuits against the Law School Admissions Council and administration of the bar exam, Elder said this was among the first cases he’s heard of concerning a private, premium bar preparation course.

“It’s a meritorious case. Blind potential lawyers should have full and equal access to materials to study for the bar,” he said.

When Elder was studying for the bar eight years ago, coaching programs were just getting into technology-based learning using remote lectures and an iPod Touch app, which was not accessible, he said.

“You’ve got developers who are using technology to deliver information and accessibility, unfortunately, is sometimes an afterthought,” Elder said, adding that making technology accessible to blind users is doable using good design principles.

“If you’re not thinking about it, it is possible to break it,” he said.

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