Wong v. Regents of the University of California

In this rare but increasingly common Section 504 educational accommodation case, the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a successful but learning disabled student was not entitled to special accommodations. The student, whose reading comprehension scores when allowed to read without time limits were at the 99.5 percentile, but under time constraints at the eighth grade level, was deemed not disabled under Section 504.

Highlights from the court’s decision follow:

“That is not to say that a successful student by definition cannot qualify as “disabled” under the Acts. A blind student is properly considered to be disabled, because of the limitation on the major life activity of seeing, even if she graduates at the top of her class. Nor do we say that a successful student cannot prove “disability” based on a learning impairment. A learning-impaired student may properly be considered to be disabled if he could not have achieved success without special accommodations. But a student cannot successfully claim to be disabled based on being substantially limited in his ability to “learn” if he has not, in fact, been substantially limited, as that term is used in the Acts.

The relevant question for determining whether Wong is “disabled” under the Acts is not whether he might be able to prove to a trier of fact that his learning impairment makes it impossible for him to keep up with a rigorous medical school curriculum. It is whether his impairment substantially limits his ability to learn as a whole, for purposes of daily living, as compared to most people. The level of academic success Wong has achieved without special accommodation
precludes the possibility that he could establish that he is disabled under the Acts based on a learning impairment. Wong is not less able to “learn” than most people. His record proves the contrary.

Nothing in this decision precludes a student from receiving accommodations or prevents a school from providing them. The question is whether the federal Acts compel the school to provide accommodations. Our answer to that question is not “no” (as the dissenting opinion implies) or “yes, always,” but “yes, sometimes.” The determining factor is whether the student is “disabled” under the terms of the Acts.

The term “learning disability” is commonly used. In the current context that term can be misleading, however, for it is clear that a person who has a “learning disability” is not necessarily “disabled” under the Acts. The Acts use the term in a narrower fashion, to cover only those persons who have an impairment that substantially limits one of the major life activities. . . Although he may have a learning disability, Wong is not substantially limited in the life activity of “learning” as compared to most people. The law compels accommodations for someone who is “disabled” as that term is used in the Acts, but not for everyone who may have a condition described as a “learning disability.”

As for the activity of reading, Wong’s contention was not that he could not read, but that, as a result of his learning disability, he read very slowly and often had to re-read material several times. He cited evidence, for instance, that his reading comprehension scores, when allowed to read without time limits, were at the 99.5 percentile, but under time constraints he read at the eighth grade level.7 In essence, it was argued that Wong read slowly, especially when compared to his own reading comprehension ability without time limits, or to others in his academic peer group. He did not, however, present evidence to the district court or argue to us that he was substantially limited in his ability to read for purposes of daily living, or as compared to what is important in the daily life of most people. That is the appropriate standard.

3 Replies to "Wong v. Regents of the University of California"

  • Stack
    September 8, 2004 (2:34 pm)

    It is tragic that colleges and universities treat learning disabled students this way. To go this far — to court — to justify refusing a person the accommodations necessary for success is sad.
    This young man could be a physician given some extra time to read. But the university chooses instead to deny him the opportunity to succeed. The paradox many learning disabled students face is that everyone seems to want them to be the very best they can be — through high school only. After that, well, too bad if you can’t keep up. These colleges are the worst that they can be.

  • Roxalana
    August 13, 2008 (4:33 pm)

    You might want to read the case. I don’t think I’d want him for a doctor.

  • q
    June 15, 2009 (5:56 pm)

    if a regular person has to work fairly hard to get into med school and pass the first 2 years, imagine how hard someone w/ a learning disability has to work.

    how many doctors out there are unqualified and are negligent and make mistakes and drink the night before an operation… and do these people not continue to be doctors? this guy never even got a chance to prove his competence.

    if we learn anything from this case, its that life is unfair.