Light & Verity

Dyslexic med student wins fight for extra time

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Fred Romberg ’12MD, who has severe dyslexia, earned a master's in engineering from Caltech before coming to Yale for medical school. View full image

Fred Romberg ’12MD can build an airplane and teach you to fly it. He can win a grant for a “High-Resolution Time-Frequency Analysis of Neurovascular Responses to Ischemic Challenges.”

And Romberg can read—very slowly.

Both parts of that last sentence are crucial to understanding Romberg’s story of triumph and adversity. A 42-year-old student at the Yale School of Medicine, Romberg has severe dyslexia. His latest triumph—a legal settlement giving him extra time on the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination—packs less drama than some of his previous accomplishments.

But the settlement underscores a catch-22 for people with learning disabilities: if they succeed despite adversity, they may be seen as not truly disabled.

Undiagnosed until he was a young adult, Romberg struggled in school and left after tenth grade. But he got a GED, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s in engineering before coming to Yale in 2006. By this spring, he expects to have completed all his med school requirements—except the licensing exam.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he asked the National Board of Medical Examiners, which administers the exam, for extra time on the test. The private agency refused: despite the recommendations of Yale experts, it decided that Romberg hadn’t proved he was “substantially limited in a major life activity.”

“They would take and use any of my accomplishments against me,” Romberg says. “I have a graduate degree from Caltech; I worked for Caltech for 12 years. ‘Well, he obviously doesn’t need accommodations.’”

For help appealing the NBME decision, Romberg turned to Sally Shaywitz, a professor at the medical school and a leading dyslexia researcher. “Fred’s entire history and testing confirmed” his need for accommodations, Shaywitz says. “It was really shocking when he was turned down.”

She encouraged Romberg to file a complaint with the U.S. justice department, which opened an investigation. In the February 23 settlement, the NBME agreed to give Romberg twice the usual testing time. The board “denies that it has violated the ADA in any way,” the settlement specifies. In a statement, the NBME says it reached an “amicable resolution” after the justice department “provided additional documentation relating to Mr. Romberg.”

Shaywitz calls the settlement “a clarion call to the testing agencies. You have to follow the law, and you have to follow science.”

The website of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, which Shaywitz runs with her husband Bennett, is full of stories of high-achieving dyslexics: actors, writers, scientists, and doctors. Listen to Shaywitz and you can picture Dr. Fred Romberg joining them.

“He is an engineer and has great facility with technology,” she says. “I expect him to invent new pieces of equipment that will improve anesthesiology. Yale medical school will be very proud to count Fred Romberg as an alumnus.”  

The comment period has expired.