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August 22, 2014

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Court: Chiropractic college must accommodate blind

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L.E. Baskow

Jenny Stiles has her sinuses checked by chiropractor Dr. Scott Wallace during a regular spine adjustment session due to her uneven leg lengths, her mom Karen waits for the start of her session in the background, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court ordered the nation's leading chiropractic college on Friday to make accommodations to allow blind students to complete degrees, in an important victory for the rights of the disabled.

The court rejected Palmer College of Chiropractic's contention that eyesight is a requirement for the profession, which involves adjusting patients' spines to treat back pain. The Davenport, Iowa-based college argued that chiropractors must be able to read X-rays to deliver safe and effective adjustments and that allowing blind students to rely on assistants for that information wasn't feasible.

Writing for the majority in a 5-2 decision, Justice Daryl Hecht said the college discriminated when it did not allow student Aaron Cannon to pursue a degree with the help of a sighted reader. He said that accommodation would not "fundamentally alter" Palmer's educational standards, given that many chiropractors rely on outside experts to take X-rays.

Dissenting Justice Thomas Waterman said the decision "elevates political correctness over common sense," saying chiropractors need eyesight to analyze radiographs and assess patients' symptoms. He said justices shouldn't second-guess the experts at Palmer, saying the "intrusion into academic judgment on professional health care standards is unprecedented."

"What is next? Are we going to require the Federal Aviation Administration to hire blind air traffic controllers, relying on assistants to tell them what is appearing on the screen? The principle is the same here," he wrote. "A misinterpreted X-ray could lead to improper treatment and lifelong paralysis."

But advocates noted that blind people have been successful chiropractors for generations. Hecht wrote that medical schools were increasingly making accommodations for blind people, at least two of whom have graduated from Palmer.

College officials told Cannon that accommodations made for previous blind students were no longer available because of changing technical standards. A rule adopted in 2002 required degree candidates to have "sufficient use of vision" to perform exams and review radiographs.

College officials cautioned Cannon about the standard before admitting him in 2004. They later said he would reach a "stoppage point" in the program when students begin radiology coursework, saying his proposed accommodation would put too much responsibility on the assistant. Cannon withdrew in 2005, filing a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission.

Cannon said he hoped the ruling would help future blind students enter health care fields. He said the ruling meant colleges have to try to accommodate disabled students, rather than assuming they will not succeed.

"The only thing I'm asking for is some accommodations, which is a sighted reader and the opportunity to stand or fall based on my own abilities," said Cannon, 34, married and the father of four.

Now a software engineer in Bloomington, Minnesota, Cannon said he had always wanted to become a chiropractor to help heal people but that "would be pretty tricky" now given his life circumstances.

Palmer said in a statement it would continue making "reasonable academic accommodations" for disabled students.

"We share the concerns expressed in the dissenting opinion regarding the potential adverse effects the ruling may have on health and public safety," said Donna Craft, president of the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, which tests graduates.

The decision reinstates a 2010 ruling by the Davenport commission, which ordered Palmer to readmit Cannon with the use of an assistant and pay $100,000 in damages and legal fees. Palmer appealed, and a judge overturned the ruling.

Cannon's lawsuit was supported by the National Federation of the Blind, which warned that blind students would be excluded if Palmer's policy was upheld. Palmer, founded in 1897, is considered the field's birthplace. Other professional groups backed its position in the case.

Cannon's attorney, Scott LaBarre of Denver, said the ruling signals "very loudly and clearly" that colleges cannot get out of their duties to accommodate disabled students by asking courts to defer to their academic judgment. He said Palmer's standard requiring vision "caused blanket discrimination" against blind students that precluded the opportunity for individual accommodations.

"I think it's an important victory in this area of disability rights law," said LaBarre, president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers. "You've got to make sure that the academic standard is not being confused with stereotypes based on disability. I think that's what happened here."

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