Bar Exams in the Pandemic JURIST Digital Scholars
For Our Convenience, Could You Suspend Being Diabetic During the PA Bar Exam?

As an immunocompromised individual, I was initially grateful when the PA bar exam moved online. Now, I wouldn’t have to worry about Covid-19 affecting my health during this crucial exam. This morning, though, that feeling was more-than-slightly altered when I saw a message from the PA Board of Law Examiners with health implications that were potentially dire and wholly avoidable, all so the PA bar exam could be more convenient for examiners worried about possible tech glitches on the platform.

When I checked my email and saw this new message notification, I assumed I was going to be directed to update about remote bar examination testing rules, or to a link to the software, it plans on using for the October test. Instead, I saw the following:

This message is regarding your previously filed medical alert. Your medical alert is still active and you may keep your approved diabetic supplies with you during the October 2020 remote exam. Please be aware that if you use any of your diabetic supplies during testing, your session will be flagged for review by the board office staff. Also, any noise will cause your session to be flagged so please have any glucose monitors in a silent setting. We would ask that you refrain from using any of the items, if possible, unless it is medically necessary to do so. You were approved to have food and drink with you, however, it is strongly discouraged due to the fact that it will be flagged. We are reaching out to ask if you feel you will still need to have these diabetic supplies, food, and a drink with you while testing since the exam is now remote. Thank you.

I did a double-take. Then, I did a triple-take. Do I think I would need access to my medical supplies now that the exam is remote? Unfortunately, for me, the answer was a resounding “yes.” As a Type 1 Diabetic, the fact that I’d be taking the bar exam in my dining room rather than in the Philadelphia Convention Center wouldn’t have any bearing on the broken nature of my pancreas. I’d still need my insulin. I’d still need food or a drink in case my blood sugar plummeted. I’d still need my glucose monitor. Why would any of this have changed? The questions spun through my mind, but were consistently overshadowed by one new question: who on Earth on the PABOLE okayed that this callous, ignorant and dismissive message be sent out to someone who needs these things to live? Weren’t these people attorneys? Have any of them heard of the ADA? This question will remain at the forefront of my mind all day, especially as social media revealed that I was not the only insulin-dependent diabetic who had received this message from the Board.

I responded:

Unfortunately, for me and the Board, my diabetes cannot be conveniently turned off during testing. Placing my CGM on silent when I’m also prone to low blood sugars is 100% discouraged by my medical team. This message and guidance are incredibly dismissive and ignorant.

About an hour later, I received the following reply: “Thank you for your response.”

For those who don’t know, Type 1 Diabetes basically equates to having a dead pancreas. T1s’ bodies are incapable of producing their own insulin and thus rely on insulin injections to survive. These injections are life-sustaining. Without these injections and a hoard of other measures and technologies ranging from having candy or juice boxes always within reach to be physically connected to pumps and monitors, the daily struggle of staying alive and healthy can be difficult for a T1, and stress can exacerbate this. Certainly, most of us would be thrilled if we could turn this facet of our lives off for a day – or 3 for the bar exam – but this isn’t the case.

Many people associate diabetes with high blood sugar, and this is true. But the issue with which Type 1 diabetics also deal is low blood sugar. While high blood sugar can make someone nauseous or lethargic, the serious problems it causes are seen over time. Loss of eyesight, loss of limbs – these issues come from months or years of high blood sugar, and neglect in treatment. Low blood sugar, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. Low blood sugar can cause a person to pass out, seize, or even die. I’ve experienced this firsthand. As someone who is prone to low blood sugar, I’ve awakened one too many times in an ambulance or hospital room from a life-threatening low and have landed in the ICU multiple times. This is why so many insulin-dependent diabetics wear continuous glucose monitors or CGMs.  These monitors are physically connected to the body with a needle that consistently tests one’s blood sugar, serving as an alert system for the wearer.  These CGMs beep audibly to alert the wearer of a dangerously low blood sugar level so that the wearer can make quick adjustments. While an alert for a high blood sugar can be silenced or turned to vibrate, as suggested by the PABOLE’s message, alerts for low blood sugars cannot. These conditions can be life-threatening, and CGMs are designed to beep loud enough to wake someone from a sound sleep in order to remedy a condition before it is too late. The purpose of a CGM is not one of convenience but of survival.

So, no. No, I wouldn’t be able to silence my monitor or forego having my medicine available. Yes. Yes, I’d need to have food and juice on the table. And, yes, I’d need to consistently check on my blood sugar levels as I do all day, every day, regardless of the bar exam. If these things are going to flag the system, flag away. I have no choice. I wish I did.

The more I reread the initial message, the more the gist of the question came through. “For our convenience, could you suspend being diabetic during the bar exam?”

The Board has continually noted that its decision to move to a remote exam was in the best interest of candidates’ health, and now, every bar examinee who had been approved for a medical accommodation for diabetes was being asked via a tone-deaf mass email to keep the very things that keep them healthy – and alive for that matter – off the table.

Having an illness, a disability, or the need for medical accommodation is stressful enough. Diabetes is a taxing and burdensome disease, but it’s manageable, thanks to the means and methods for which I was initially approved for an in-person examination. The location doesn’t change this. To think that it would is asinine, and to think that people with accommodations would not advocate for themselves and their health when this is what we’ve been taught to do for the previous three years is even more so.

The PA Board of Law Examiners continues its attempt to “assure” the public that the health and well-being of the bar’s “stakeholders,” has always been the priority. At this point, the most directly-affected stakeholders – the applicants – have come to realize that not only is this a farse but that we’ve never truly been considered as a part of this group.  The stakeholders are those with money and power, for whom the actual administering of this exam means nothing. For the rest of us, we’ve been left to flounder in the mess that has become the PA bar exam. The current remote exam is not what the field has utilized to measure suitability for the profession in the past. It is not even close. Rather, this new exam format and it’s a laundry list of restrictions is a cobbled-together, haphazard and inequitable method of judgment, crafted by a group of individuals who have clearly failed to recognize their place of privilege in this pandemic or their respective lack of empathy.

The Board’s disregard for its future compatriots, especially those with medical issues or disabilities, is callous. It is shameful. Examinees see this with clear eyes. No amount of gaslighting by being told that these decisions have been made for our benefit or for smooth grading or administering will make the Board’s decisions any less heartless.

 

Caitlyn Tallarico is a 2020 graduate of Widener Commonwealth University School of Law. Prior to graduating from law school, she worked for seven years as a copy-writer, editor, and ghostwriter. 

 

Suggested Citation: Caitlyn Tallarico, For Our Convenience, Could You Suspend Being Diabetic During the PA Bar Exam?, JURIST – Professional Commentary, September 8, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/09/caitlyn-tallarico-bar-medical/.


This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org.


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