A Bureaucratic Odyssey

Here’s a circuitous tale.

It concerns a certain GED student in the program where I volunteer.  I’ll call him Joe. I could write a book about Joe, but suffice it to say he’s a very deserving guy, someone who has worked hard, changed his life, and deserves some good luck. However, this story isn’t actually about Joe. It’s about the system, and I’ll probably abridge the story, because it’s distressingly complicated and very, very long.

A few months ago, Joe recalled that in the past he’d had a learning disability diagnosis and an IEP, that is, an Individualized Education Plan—educationese for a program designed to address the needs of students with disabilities. Since the GED testing service touts its accommodations for such students, he began looking into whether he qualified. He’s close to passing the GED, and the “accommodation”–an extra half hour of time–could put him over the top

I don’t know the details of Joe’s search but am quite sure his story bears many similarities to mine. Unlike me, though, he actually traveled—via buses and on foot, taking time off from work—from office to office, toting his various forms and records and showing them in vain to people behind desks. He even possessed a letter signed by his doctor explicitly attesting that Joe needed extra time to complete his test, but no matter how many offices he visited and what forms he acquired, he never had the right forms or the right signatures.

During our tutoring session one day, Joe briefly described this frustrating process. He had given up, but I figured that since he already had a diagnosis and an IEP, there was still hope. Naively, I figured that a few calls from some educated people with degrees to other educated people with degrees would do the trick.

I contacted lawyer friends of mine. One of them took up the task of researching online what Joe needed. She diligently made calls to folks in education, as well. She determined, after hours of googling and copying and calling, that Joe’s testing and diagnosis, from about seven years ago, were invalid. Joe would have to be retested.

Undeterred, I sent an email far and wide. Did anyone know a person qualified to test an adult for learning disabilities? Soon I received a promising response: someone knew a retired school psychologist who specialized in such testing. I phoned this man, “Phil,” who was very nice and seemed highly qualified. Unfortunately, he charged $650 for this service, an amount that neither Joe nor our GED program could afford. Phil explained that he spent anywhere from 6 to 11 hours per student, over and above the actual testing, in completing the required paperwork.

Phil gave us hope, however, by referring us to a state program that offered such testing for free! I contacted this program and was told that our GED classes needed a particular source of funding in order to qualify, which (I bet you’re already guessing), we didn’t have. We didn’t have the right kind of funding to qualify for free testing for Joe, who already has a learning disability diagnosis, in order to (perhaps) get Joe an extra half hour for his GED test. Investigating all this took me about a week.

On the free testing program’s website, however, I found some names of psychologists who could provide this testing. I contacted all of them. One generously offered to do the testing for only the amount that Medicaid would cover. I had to find out from Joe, then, what his Medicaid would cover. Contacting Joe, who would then have to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of Medicaid, seemed daunting. The other psychologists listed on the website worked only with children or had stopped doing this testing.

In the meantime, I received another promising response to my email plea, offering the services of a school psychologist with particular learning disability expertise who would provide the testing pro bono. He and I exchanged numerous phone calls and emails before we finally made actual contact. Days passed.

Besides the testing hurdle, we faced a time crunch. Joe needs to complete the test and pass it before the end of the year, because in January a new, harder test kicks in. In addition, the passing scores that Joe has already earned on sections of the test will be thrown out in 2014, and he’ll have to start from scratch. When I finally made contact with our new tester, “Ed,” he understood these obstacles. Though scheduling Joe’s tests would be difficult for him, he’d try to fit it in. For free.

He posed one question, however. What particular tests did Joe need to take?

You can imagine the sick feeling in my stomach. Wouldn’t you know what tests to administer? I asked. Ed responded that were lots of tests, and he would need to know which tests the GED people regard as suitable.

It was getting to be mid-October at this point. Joe’s GED test is scheduled for mid-November. How do we test him and fill out all the right forms and submit them in time? Remember that Joe started this process, himself, with time to spare–in March, in fact. He, in my opinion, is above reproach.

So, I called Phil, the $650 guy, back. Which tests, exactly, would our new, pro-bono guy have to administer? Phil said he didn’t know. How could this be? I wondered. Phil, a little flustered, responded that there are lots of tests, and we’d have to determine what Joe’s problems are in order to choose the appropriate tests.

In other words, as my lawyer friend pointed out, we have to know what Joe’s learning disability is before we test him for a learning disability. Nowhere in his high-school IEP is an actual diagnosis listed. His diagnosis is still filed in the Cleveland Municipal School District, but everyone tells me that there’s absolutely no hope of acquiring this information from the Cleveland Municipal School District. I admit I didn’t try, but time is short, and everyone said there’s no hope. This is one more strike against Joe: he attended school in a district where his records are inaccessible.

I turned to the many Xeroxed documents from my lawyer friend. They list seven “accommodation request forms” I may or may not need, depending on which test Joe would take and what disability he suffers from. Then you have to accumulate a complete packet of documentation that may run to twenty or thirty or more pages and submit it to your “chief examiner,” who in turn submits it to the GED Administrator, who may, in turn, forward it to the GED Testing Service for “expert review.” It’s wise, according to these documents, to leave enough time to appeal an accommodations decision in case it doesn’t go your way, in which case you’ll submit additional documentation. Thankfully, however, “disability experts review all appeal requests.”

Today, at last, I turned to the GED website to see if I could find a clearer indication of specific tests that Joe needed to take. There I found this notice: Accommodation requests for testing appointments in 2013 must be received and approved by November 1st, 2013. Any application submitted after this time will be considered for testing in 2014 only.

As I write this post, only about fifteen minutes remain before November 1st, and I don’t think we’re going to get it done. First, I’d have to figure out which tests Joe needs to take.

Why do people drop out of school? They get pregnant, they do drugs, they break the law. They goof off and get in trouble. These stereotypes hold true some of the time. Most often, however, we find that our students fell behind at some critical point. They couldn’t read well, they couldn’t pass the Ohio Graduation Test, or they couldn’t add or subtract fractions. A whole lot of these students, in other words, suffer from a learning disability. Their peers in the suburbs are much more likely to have these disabilities diagnosed and addressed early. Because our students didn’t get the help they needed, they got discouraged and dropped out of school.

They’re the precise population who would need some accommodation to take a long, difficult test like the GED. (If you think the GED is easy, try the sample questions here. Have some aspirin on hand.) For this population, many of whom probably suffer from a disability that caused them to drop of school, we make accommodations for learning disabilities exceedingly difficult to get.

We can only hope that Joe passes the test when he retakes it this month, in November. If you’re the praying sort, please include him in your prayers. Whatever happens, I expect to be writing more about Joe.

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7 Responses to A Bureaucratic Odyssey

  1. Pingback: Kathy Ewing › Joe Update

  2. Kathy says:

    Thanks to all! It’s good to have all these good thoughts for Joe.

  3. Kim Christopher says:

    I agree with Bill! I’m glad you are doing so much to help Joe. Good luck to both you and Joe and I hope things work out despite the beauracracy.

  4. Doreen says:

    Since I know Joe, I know how deserving he is… just the kind of guy our country could use in the workforce. The GED is a HUGE hurdle, and, as you’ve described, full of all kinds of unseen obstacles.
    I’m praying.

  5. Kathy says:

    Thank you!

  6. Bill Gunlocke says:

    I’m glad he’s got YOU in his corner. And I’m glad you’re going to write more about him.

  7. Jamie Kaplan says:

    Good luck Joe. I’m in your corner.

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