Kirk and the GRE: A Case Study Regarding the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and Chronic Pain


Kirk’s nervous system disorder causes him to live with chronic pain. In particular, fine motor tasks like writing, using a computer, or holding a pencil can be extremely painful. Assistive technology to circumvent these tasks and ergonomic workspaces that address his needs reduces pain and increases function. Kirk is in his senior year of his bachelors program and preparing to apply to PhD programs.

Access Issue

Kirk found that he could not get adequate accommodations to take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) without significant pain that might preclude him from being able to finish the test. To be successful, he determined that he would need a scribe, an ergonomic chair with flexible positioning, the option to lie down, a monitor that could be used in multiple positions, extended time, and permission to take the exam over multiple days. Even with these accommodations, taking the test could cause Kirk to have a flare up of his symptoms that could interfere with test taking.


Because of the likelihood of a flare-up combined with concerns that he would not be able to do his best work on the GRE even if he received his recommended accommodations, Kirk decided not to take the GRE. Instead, he asked schools to consider his application without GRE scores. He worked with his undergraduate academic advisor to draft an email message to send to program directors at schools where he applied for admission. The message explained his disability and asked if they would be willing to consider his application based on other criteria. He attached a copy of his vita because he felt that it would help program directors see that he had a strong background and was a serious applicant.

Every school Kirk emailed agreed to consider his application without GRE scores. He also found that through the replies he learned something about the programs’ attitudes towards disability issues and overall culture. Some of them were very respectful and invited further conversations about accommodations. Others were not as welcoming and suggested that Kirk might not be able to do the work their program would require.

Ultimately, Kirk was accepted to multiple programs and enrolled in one that is highly respected.


This case study illustrates:

  • Students with disabilities can learn more about the culture in a department and determine whether the department is a good fit for them by engaging in conversation about disability with prospective degree programs.
  • Students with disabilities should be creative in proposing solutions to access barriers and engage in conversations to determine whether there is flexibility in admission requirements.

You might also be interested in Case Study: Exam Accommodations and Anna’s Chronic Illness and How can students with disabilities get accommodations for the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and other standardized graduate or professional entrance exams?