The U.S. Supreme Court will consider tomorrow whether a hearing loss prevent a person from becoming a nurse.
Frances B. Davis, 46, who was turned down by a nursing program because of a severe hearing loss, has sued for admission to Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C.
Her lawyers cite a 1973 federal law that prohibits schools that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against "otherwise qualifed" handicapped persons solely because of their handicaps.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in its first friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court, also rejects the assumption that handicapped persons cannot perform safely and effectively in science-related fields, including nursing.
The AAAS said its Project on the Handicapped in Science has located several persons-including two Maryland residents-who are working as, or preparing to become, registered nurses (RNs), despite severe hearing disabilities.
The Davis' case is the first one to reach the Supreme Court that involves the 1973 Federal Rehabilitation Act's controversial Section 504 and the implementing regulations written by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The college is asking the court to uphold its admissions decision.
The section says that no "otherwise qualified" handicapped person "shall solely by reason of his handicap be excluded from participating in any program or activity receiving financial assistance."
The case has wide implications, partly because 1 of 11 Americans is handicapped.
The court's decision, expected before it recesses in late June or early July, could affect various federally funded programs in which the handicapped participate.
Last March, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Southeastern violated section 504 in 1974 when it refused to admit Davis to program that would lead to certification as a RN. Davis must be judged solely on her academic and technical qualifications, the court said in sending her case back to the trial judge who ruled for the college.
In defending the college's refusal to admit Davis to the program, the state relied mainly on Mary McRee, executive director of its board of nursing, who said that Davis' hearing disability "can preclude her being safe for practice in any setting allowed by a license as a RN or by licenses as a LPN" (licensed practical nurse).
The AAAS brief said, however, that the executive director doesn't know whether the woman can become a nurse because "she apparently has never met Ms. Davis and did not know that Davis has been licensed as a LPN since 1967. . . instead, it has been assumed that all people with disabilities similar to Ms. Davis' cannot function as nurses."
Similarly, in a motion filed in the Supreme Court in behalf of the United States, Solicitor General Wade H. McCree Jr. said that the state nursing board had not justified its rejection of Davis on the basis of her hearing impairment. "The focus must be on individual ability to perform particular functions or to complete prescribe training," he said.
Earlier, several friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the school's action and urging reversal of the 4th Circuit decision were filed.
The briefs generally support North Carolina's contention that a nursing school should be able to certify that its graduates can practice nursing skills safely and note that there are "no" partially skilled professionals and "no" partial RN licenses.
McCree noted however that one of the state's own witnesses, the director of nursing services at Southeastern General Hospital, testified that Davis "could do well" in areas such as longterm care, a doctor's office, or even industrial (medicine). "I do not believe that I can truthfully state that she would not be able to function in any area of nursing with her present determination to continue her education."