What to Know
Staci Mannella of New Jersey is taking Dartmouth College to court, saying it failed to provide accommodations for her visual disorder
She says the Ivy League school has delayed or failed to provide her with note takes, test readers, lab assistants and other visual aids
Mannella is an accomplished student athlete and a medal-winning skier who competed in the 2014 Paralymic Games in Sochi
A blind student from New Jersey is taking Dartmouth College to court, claiming the prestigious Ivy League university has failed to provide accommodations to help her overcome her visual disorder.
Staci Mannella, who has been legally blind since birth with a condition called achromatopsia, claims Dartmouth has repeatedly delayed or failed to provide her with note takers, test readers, lab assistants, and the other visual aids she needs to fully participate in courses where her classmates have the advantage of full eyesight.
In one instance, Mannella says she failed a biology exam because she wasn’t given a test reader. The exam, according to the lawsuit, required Manella to visually identify microscope images. In another example, Mannella says the school failed to line up a note taker for her chemistry class, even though all of the lecture notes were done on a chalk board which she couldn’t see.
“For the first year of college I was kind of convinced that I was at Dartmouth and wasn’t really smart enough to be there, which totally isn’t true because I’ve realized recently – if I do get the proper accommodations I actually do really well in these courses,” Mannella said.
Mannella is represented by attorney Rosemarie Arnold, who also happens to be her aunt.
"I was shocked that this Ivy League institution was not giving her the accommodations that she was legally entitled to," said Arnold. “Dartmouth alumni should be aware of what’s going on. They should be ashamed of how the administration has been handling the situation.”
Despite the fact that Mannella uses a guide dog and has severe sensitivity to light, she is an accomplished student athlete who competes on the Dartmouth equestrian team. Mannella is also a medal winning skier who represented the United States in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Arnold criticized Dartmouth for featuring Mannella's story of athletic triumph in the school’s publicity material - even while the university is accused of failing to help her overcome her visual impairment in class.
"On the one hand they’re trying to show the world that they are this wonderful caring institution where a disabled student can thrive, but on the other hand they’re not doing what they are legally required to do to help her thrive," Arnold said.
Diana Lawrence, a Dartmouth spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about the school's handling of Mannella's requests for visual help, citing the pending litigation. Instead, Lawrence sent the I-Team an emailed statement.
"Staci is a valuable member of our community," the statement reads. "We believe that the claims in the lawsuit have no merit and that we have met all of our legal obligations to Staci."
In its court filings, the school has asked a judge to dismiss the case, claiming the lawsuit, which was filed in New Jersey, should have been filed in New Hampshire.
Mannella concedes Dartmouth has provided some of the disability help she has requested, but too often she says the accommodations came too late. According to the lawsuit, during her very first semester, she didn’t receive course reading materials in a digital format until well after classes began, putting her at a disadvantage to students who could start their reading immediately.
Aside from seeking more help with her visual disability, Mannella is requesting the school refund her tuition and change her grades – from the B range to the A range - in classes where she days accommodations have been effectively denied or delayed.
“I just wish that I could represent my school and my school could do the same by educating me in a way that’s fair and equal to the rest of my peers,” Mannella said. "Right now, I would not recommend a student with a visual impairment or disability go to Dartmouth."