A Deaf Woman Wants to Be a Nurse. Can a School Deem Her Unfit for the Job?

You be the judge: Can a nursing school dismiss a hearing-impaired person because they say she's not able to care for patients?

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Jessica Wells had always wanted to be a nurse. In 2006, she applied to the Associate Science of Nursing (ASN) program at Cox College in Springfield, Missouri. Unfortunately, her GPA wasn’t high enough to make the cut, so she enrolled as a general education student, hoping to improve her grades. Wells, who is deaf, flourished, thanks in part to the accommodations that the college provided to her, such as volunteer note takers and interpreters who accompanied her to class.

After college administrators asked an employee to shadow Wells to determine how a hearing-impaired person would fare as a nursing student, the employee reported that “the deaf/hard-of-hearing individual can be successful as both a nursing student and a nurse.” Wells, then in her mid-20s, was accepted into the ASN program in fall 2007. She had an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter with her in class, in pre- and post-clinical conferences, and for a week of rotations with real patients. She was also given special equipment, like an amplified stethoscope.

On January 22, however, just before the spring 2008 semester began, Wells received a letter from the school, dismissing her from the program. The college asserted that her “hearing loss would substantially limit (and in some cases completely limit) Wells’s ability to safely perform clinical rotations.”

On January 21, 2009, Wells filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Greene County. She claimed that her dismissal from the program violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the school “fail[ed] to provide Plaintiff with reasonable accommodations so that she could participate in its nursing program despite her disability.”

“She’d done just fine in her clinical training,” says Wells’s attorney, Rita Sanders. “The school’s decision had no grounds.”

The college replied, arguing that the need to have interpreters in the clinical setting posed a “direct threat to the health or safety” of patients.

Did Cox College discriminate against a deaf student by dismissing her from its nursing program? You be the judge.

Next: The Verdict

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Cox College filed a motion for summary judgment, and the circuit court judge ruled in the school’s favor, basically tossing out the case. Wells appealed in the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals. “The college had to prove that Jessica wasn’t able to do the job with the appropriate accommodations,” says Sanders. “They didn’t show that.” She also argued that the college had not provided any evidence that Wells’s accommodations were a “direct threat” to patients. In fact, the appeals court found that Cox had actually proved the opposite to be true: “Her successful completion of the first semester while using an ASL interpreter during her clinical rotations proved the absence of any such threat.” The appeals court reversed the lower court’s ruling, then sent the case back to the circuit court for trial.

In August 2013, after five days in court, the jury ruled in favor of Wells and awarded her $50,000 for a violation of the ADA. In a statement to the press, the president of Cox College, Lance Ratcliff, explained that “if, in Cox College’s reasonable judgment, the physical standards cannot be met with or without a reasonable accommodation, patient safety can be seriously compromised … [P]atient safety is always our number one priority.” Wells is currently enrolled at Missouri State University and is still considering a degree in nursing.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest