Jim Kenyon: Blind Dartmouth student sues for chance to succeed

  • Dartmouth College student and Paralympic skier Staci Mannella works out with lawyer Sarah Nunan at Alumni Gym in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Nunan became friends with Manella while working as a paralegal on her suit against Dartmouth College for failing to provide academic accommodations for her blindness. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Staci Mannella has been legally blind since birth due to achromatopsia, a genetic condition that makes her extremely sensitive to light, unable to see colors, and causes what she can see to lack sharpness. Mannella leans close to her computer screen while studying for an exam at the Fairchild Tower in Hanover, N.H., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Closing her eyes against the bright snow, Dartmouth student Staci Mannella walks back to her apartment with her guide dog Smidge after a workout with lawyer Sarah Nunan in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • While being promoted for her skiing and equestrian abilities in Dartmouth College publications and a video, student Staci Mannella, who is legally blind, was being denied academic accommodations for her blindness by some professors. Mannella speaks with Valley News Columnist Jim Kenyon about the settlement of her 2017 lawsuit with the college during a meeting with lawyers Geoffrey Vitt and Sarah Nunan in Norwich, Vt., Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/2/2019 9:57:08 PM
Modified: 2/4/2019 9:37:52 AM

Staci Mannella gets around the Dartmouth campus using her guide dog, Smidge. In the right light, Mannella can discern objects and lettering a few feet in front of her.

But that’s about it. The 22-year-old Dartmouth senior has been legally blind since birth.

And as absurd as it sounds to say this about an Ivy League institution in 2019, some of Mannella’s professors at Dartmouth didn’t grasp her disability. Or worse, they didn’t seem to care.

One professor claimed to have made accommodations for Mannella’s disability — by letting her sit in the front row of his classroom.

Another was asked to consider using high-visibility markers when writing on an interactive whiteboard. In an email to college administrators, the professor responded, “Just a reminder, I have a sensitive nose and will be having headaches if I will have to use (these) markers (for lengthy stretches). The low odor ones we have on campus will not cut it.

“I want to make sure that whatever the solution is, it doesn’t cause me harm, but more importantly it doesn’t affect my ability to seamlessly teach the other 60 (plus) students in class.”

But nothing topped the first semester of Mannella’s second year. She signed up for “Biology 12,” a course that she needed to pursue her dream of going to veterinarian school.

After failing the first test — not because she didn’t know the material, but because she couldn’t see what she was looking at under a microscope — Mannella asked the professor for extra help. Instead, the professor told Mannella that her course was “very visual.” She suggested Mannella consider transferring to a school that was less academically challenging.

But Mannella — with plenty of backup from her parents — refused to go away. She continued to push for the services and accommodations that people with disabilities are entitled to under federal civil rights laws.

For two years, Mannella and her parents, who live in Randolph, N.J., kept at it with emails and phone calls to Dartmouth administrators. They met twice with President Phil Hanlon.

“Everyone promised it was going to get better, but it never did,” Mannella told me last week.

In the fall of 2016, Mannella and her parents sued Dartmouth in federal court. They alleged the college had failed to properly accommodate her disability by failing to provide the resources that she needed, including note-takers, test-readers and versions of classroom materials that she could see.

Mannella’s aunt, Rosemarie Arnold, a New Jersey attorney, filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey. The case was later moved to federal court in New Hampshire, where Mannella’s parents, both dentists, hired Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt to represent the family.

“We weren’t asking the college to do anything revolutionary,” Vitt said in an interview last week. “The law has been around a long time.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA, was enacted in 1990. Along with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the ADA requires colleges — public and private — that receive federal funding to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities.

Six weeks ago, the Mannella family reached an out-of-court settlement with Dartmouth. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

But the family was seeking more than just money.

The agreement includes a so-called consent decree, which is public information, that spells out what Dartmouth must do in the future to assist Mannella and other students with disabilities. (About one in 10 Dartmouth students have a disability.)

The three-page decree requires, among other things, that Dartmouth develop and implement a “mandatory training program for faculty and staff concerning accommodations or adjustments for students with disabilities.”

It will be called the “Mannella Protocol.”

Staci was only a few months old when Susan Arnold and her husband, Aaron Mannella, began to worry that something was wrong with their youngest child’s eyesight.

As a test, Arnold slowly moved her index finger back and forth in front of her daughter’s face.

“She wasn’t tracking my finger,” Arnold said.

At the age of 4 months, Staci was diagnosed with achromatopsia, a rare genetic eye disorder that can severely reduce sharpness of vision, increase sensitivity to light and make it difficult to perceive colors.

An eye specialist in New Jersey offered a grim prognosis: Staci would never lead a normal life. She’d attend a special school for the blind.

Mannella started researching his daughter’s condition. He found a leading expert in Philadelphia, who agreed to take Staci as a patient. She’ll never be able to do some things that most people take for granted, such as driving a car, the doctor concluded, but the outlook wasn’t as dire as her parents were initially led to believe.

Early on, Mannella and Arnold, who have two other children, stressed to Staci that her disability couldn’t become a crutch.

“You can’t feel sorry for yourself,” her mother told her. “Your vision is no excuse for you not doing something.”

Before Staci was school age, her parents enrolled her in an adaptive alpine skiing program. “We figured skiing was something we could all do together as a family,” Arnold said. By the time she was 4, Staci, holding onto a bamboo pole between two sighted skiers, was cruising down mountain slopes.

She also took up karate. At 10, she was working on her black belt when her karate club held a raffle in which one of the prizes was horseback riding lessons. Staci won.

She’s been riding ever since.

Ski racing, however, is where Mannella made a name for herself. At 17, she became the youngest woman on the U.S. Para Alpine Ski Team. Working in tandem with a guide skiing in front of her, Mannella rockets down icy slopes at 60 mph. The two skiers communicate via radio with the guide calling out “turns and shifts in snow conditions or the rhythm of the course,” wrote The New York Times in a 2014 story about Mannella and other visually impaired racers.

Mannella excelled on the slopes — and in the classroom. At Morris County School of Technology, a public high school near her home in New Jersey, she pulled down a 3.9 grade-point average and scored a 34 out of 36 on the ACT.

She had her pick of elite schools, but Dartmouth was her first choice, in part because the college’s academic calendar would allow her to continue skiing on the national team — and it had an equestrian team.

Before applying in the fall of 2013, however, Mannella and her parents wanted to make sure Dartmouth understood her disability and the services she’d need to succeed academically. They also shared her interest in veterinary medicine, which requires a heavy dose of undergraduate science courses.

In emails and conversations, Dartmouth administrators assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.

In late 2013, she was accepted early decision. Two months later, while still in high school, Mannella competed at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Russia, earning sixth-place finishes in slalom and giant slalom.

After earning a bronze medal in super combined at the 2017 World Championship, Mannella followed up with three top-10 finishes at the 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea.

Dartmouth hasn’t hesitated to let the world know that Mannella was one of its own. The college touted her skiing and equestrian accomplishments in a video and publications.

“They went out of their way to promote her to enhance their image,” said her aunt, Rosemarie Arnold, in a 2017 interview with a New York TV station. “Yet when it came to giving her what she needed to succeed in their school, they just plain didn’t do it.”

While Mannella’s athletic career was taking off, academically she hit bottom early on in college.

“For a lot of my first year, I questioned whether I was smart enough to be here,” she said. “I assumed I didn’t belong here.”

Like other Dartmouth students with disabilities, Mannella relied on the college’s office of Student Accessibility Services, or SAS, to work with professors on her behalf. (In 2016, SAS served 440 students.)

In theory, professors send class materials — textbooks, assignments, practice exams, and the like — to SAS. The office then converts the materials into formats to accommodate a student’s disability. Mannella often needed reading materials in large print or required access to text-to-speech conversion software.

But some professors don’t make it a priority to get class materials to SAS in timely fashion, or at all. It didn’t help that SAS was understaffed. Sometimes, Mannella said, she didn’t get the reading material until 10 minutes before class.

In a November 2015 email to Ward Newmeyer, the SAS director, Mannella wrote, “This term has been really academically challenging for me and not always having access to all of my readings in a timely manner has added to my stress level significantly.”

Newmeyer thanked her for alerting his office.

“I am really sorry about the frustration you have had to endure,” he wrote back.

Still, the situation didn’t improve. In early 2016, Newmeyer emailed the faculty.

“Students with disabilities have the right to accessible course materials at the same time those materials are available to their classmates,” he wrote, “but this often does not occur at Dartmouth College.”

Again, not much changed. Faculty continued to ignore SAS’s requests and the administration declined to step in.

The day before her organic chemistry final exam in June 2016, Mannella still hadn’t received the answer keys to the professor’s practice exam. She couldn’t check her answers to the practice test, putting her at a disadvantage during the actual exam.

In the fall of 2016, Mannella didn’t get the syllabus or readings in biological anthropology until after the first class. On the third day of class, she sat through a two-hour lecture without any materials.

At times, Mannella considered taking the professor’s advice about transferring.

“That would have been a cop-out,” she said. “There are a lot of things about Dartmouth that I really like. I have great friends here.”

She also became more comfortable as a junior when she got off the veterinarian track and made anthropology her major.

“In the anthropology department, professors were willing to work with me and understood my needs as a student with a disability,” she said. “They taught me how to really enjoy academia again.”

Mannella’s lawsuit gained national attention, which proved good and bad. She sometimes felt that people viewed her as the “blind girl who didn’t get what she wanted, so she sued her college.”

Dartmouth has a reputation for being a tight-knit community. Alums bleed green. How could she sue her own school?

“There are people who still probably feel I shouldn’t have done it,” Mannella said.

She’s received support from people that she didn’t expect. One professor told her that these types of lawsuits are how change is made at institutions.

It’s helped having Vitt and Sarah Nunan, a paralegal in his office, on her side.

“This is a really easy case to get worked up about,” said Nunan, who recently passed the Vermont bar exam.

In the lawsuit’s discovery process, the college was required to hand over more than 40,000 pages of documents and emails. Nunan read all of them.

She researched lawsuits filed by students with disabilities at other colleges. She also learned that Mannella was far from the first Dartmouth student with a disability to face barriers to services she was entitled to by federal law.

The Dartmouth, the college’s daily student newspaper, wrote about a group of students pressing for increased services in 2009. Newmeyer, who heads SAS, told the newspaper that when it came to the faculty, his office could only do so much.

“My enforcement authority is limited,” he said. “I can’t tell a professor that they have to do something beyond what I’ve already done.”

SAS also lacked resources, he said. In recent years, Dartmouth has started devoting more to the office. The SAS budget — $337,628 in 2015 — has more than doubled. (Any doubt that Mannella might have something to do with that?)

The college is also upgrading classroom technology.

“You wouldn’t think that a place like Dartmouth wouldn’t be short on resources, but some classrooms are lacking,” Vitt said.

It’s tempting to blame SAS and insufficient funding for Dartmouth’s failure to adequately support students with disabilities. But that overlooks the role the faculty and administration.

“You’ve got tenured professors who have been teaching their classes for 15, 20 or 25 years,” Vitt said. “They don’t want to change, but they need to.”

Mannella graduates in June. (Skiing for the national team and a reduced course load some terms put her on the five-year plan.) She’s contemplating graduate school and a career in sports psychology.

Mannella recognizes she was fortunate that things turned out the way they did. Her parents had the means to hire a good lawyer who isn’t afraid to take on Dartmouth. (From my experience, not many lawyers in the Upper Valley are willing to do that.)

I think it’s fair to say that without the lawsuit, the changes called for in the consent decree, including developing a “corrective action plan for adequately providing accommodations for students with disabilities,” wouldn’t have come about. Dartmouth doesn’t do much until its hand is forced.

In an email response, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me, “Dartmouth strives continually to improve its support for students with disabilities” and the college was “pleased to commit to the terms outlined in the consent decree.”

It will be interesting to watch. Will the faculty buy in? If professors continue to balk, will the administration step in — finally?

Dartmouth no longer can make excuses, Mannella said.

“This sort of ignorance isn’t acceptable in the future. I don’t want students with disabilities who come after me to have to fight like I did,” she said.

Nunan has gotten to know Mannella as more than just as a client. They work out together at Dartmouth’s gym and play ice hockey. (“I wouldn’t call what I do hockey,” Mannella joked. “It’s really me just skating around with a hockey stick in my hand.”)

The important thing is Mannella is willing to put herself out there, whether it be on the ice, in an equestrian ring, on a ski slope or in a classroom. Said Nunan, “Staci came to Dartmouth thinking she could do anything.”

When it comes to making change for students with disabilities, it seems to me that she has.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Dartmouth posted this video on its Facebook page in December 2015.
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