Legally blind man denied what he says he needed to write exam files human rights complaint

In his Toronto office space, Jacob Charendoff tackles his workload a little differently.

Using an enlarged screen and magnifying software on his computer and iPhone, he might take a little longer to respond to emails, but otherwise works for a successful business in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood.

Charendoff was diagnosed at 15 with Stargardt disease — a genetic disorder that results in progressive vision loss. He has no central vision, but can use his peripheral vision to complete most tasks with the proper accommodations.

The 28-year-old says he feels his human rights were violated when he applied to write the first level of the chartered financial analyst exam with the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute. He says the institute denied him the tools he needs to write the test on the same playing field with other candidates. The program is divided into three levels of exams.

"I asked for reasonable accommodations that had been provided to me in the past for testing requirements," Charendoff said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

He said he was completing a preparation course for the test at the University of Toronto, where they were able to meet his needs. Now, he's filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The CFA Institute said it puts "significant resources into this process to ensure that each person can compete on a level and equitable playing field," but it does not guarantee "requests for special testing accommodations will always be granted."

Talia Ricci/CBC

Charendoff asked for more time to complete the test, a private room, the ability to use a computer or have the test printed in size-32 font, and permission to use a digital calculator on a tablet that he can zoom in on — rather than a traditional financial calculator that he isn't able to see clearly.

Charendoff said he had an optometrist provide a letter stating his conditions and his needs, and it was sent to the institute.

CBC News has seen the emails exchanged between Charendoff and the institute, which is based in the United States.

The institute agreed to more time and a private room, but said it was unable to allow him to use a digital calculator for security reasons, and the test had to be printed in size-16 font due to formatting.

The emails show the institute went on to offer Charendoff a magnifying glass that was inspected and approved, and access to a reader and a scribe — someone designated to read aloud and write the answers on his behalf.

Joe Fiorino/CBC

"I have never used these accommodations before," Charendoff said, adding he felt the offer of a magnifying glass was "belittling."

"I was very patient with trying to understand the rationale further to several email exchanges we had. I was trying to understand the reasoning for this."

In further email exchanges, Charendoff asked for a chance to complete a practice test to get used to the tools he had never used before. The institute denied the request, saying he could arrive 30 minutes early the day of the exam.

Charendoff decided not to write the exam, which was scheduled for June 2019.

"I don't agree that we should have these boxed accommodations," he said.

"I think we're in a society and a point in time and history where we understand people are different, and have different needs and requirements to be successful."

Lawyer surprised this is 'still an issue'  

David Baker, a lawyer and the principal of Bakerlaw, a charter and human rights law firm in Toronto, isn't involved in Charendoff's case, but was asked to comment on it. He says cases like this were more frequent in the 1980s and '90s.

"The CFA talking about a paper-based examination and refusing to accommodate someone with a visual disability that requires the use of a computer seems to be something I haven't seen in a long long time," Baker said.

 "He's being told he has to accept accommodations that I don't believe would be acceptable for anyone with a visual disability," Baker said. He went on to say technology has come a long way from scribes and readers.

Joe Fiorino/CBC

Baker said he believes Charendoff has a case.

He said he has seen cases where people have been set back in their professional education due to a failure to accommodate, and been compensated for the loss of income.

"I'm surprised that this is still an issue," he said.

"I understand it will cause him [Charendoff] a great deal of hardship because these exams are the entry point for professions and careers, and he's essentially being told he has to put his career on hold."

Baker said although the institute is private, it has a duty to accommodate Charendoff as inclusively as possible.

'We follow the law,' institute says

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the institute said it cannot comment on individual cases to protect candidates' privacy.

"We can tell you that when we evaluate accommodation requests for testing access based on disabilities, we follow the law and we aim to ensure that every applicant has the ability to sit for the exam and be graded based on their skills and knowledge, and not be held back because of any disability," the statement reads.

The institute said it has a "comprehensive and robust" review process that considers every individual's application for accommodations.

For now, Charendoff has put his plans to become a financial analyst on hold, saying he felt embarrassed and disappointed having to relay that decision to his family after a year of studying and spending money on the preparation course. 

He hopes sharing his experience provokes change.

"I want people to understand that this is a reality — that there is disability profiling."