Despite Regulations, Low-Income Californians With Learning Disabilities Often Fall Through the Cracks

Michele Marino of Long Beach said undiagnosed learning disabilities made it difficult for her to complete requirements to receive cash assistance for herself and her two sons, Jacob, 9, and Christian, 12.
Michele Marino of Long Beach said undiagnosed learning disabilities made it difficult for her to complete requirements to receive cash assistance for herself and her two sons, Jacob, 9, and Christian, 12.

Shortly after she began participating in California’s Welfare-to-Work program, Michele Marino began to think she was going crazy.

The single mother had just enrolled in a government cash-assistance program to help support herself and her two young sons, while she searched for a job and took classes at a community college. But daily tasks, school, parenting and the government requirements to stay in the welfare program felt overwhelming.

“I ran around like a lunatic stressed out of my mind,” said the 46-year-old Marino, who at the time lived in Kern County and now lives in Long Beach. “My anxiety was through the roof, I had gastro-intestinal issues … I couldn’t keep up. I thought I was going to lose my mind, I was desperate, I thought, ‘Something is wrong.’”

It turned out, something was. It was a full two years later when Marino found out she had severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and an auditory comprehension deficit. Although the county welfare department that processed her paperwork was supposed to screen for learning disabilities, her issues were not identified. She received her diagnosis only after taking a test for learning disabilities at the community college she attended.

Despite state and federal regulations, in many cases learning disabilities are still not detected or accommodated among low-income people enrolled in government programs, according to legal advocates for the poor. These problems can prevent them from finding jobs, put them at risk of losing their benefits and can even lead to charges of fraud, the advocates said.

Identifying issues can lead to accommodations

Disabilities, including learning disabilities, are common among welfare recipients. A Census Bureau report showed almost a third of adults in the U.S. receiving income-based government assistance in 2011 had a disability. More specifically, 14 percent of adults on public assistance had cognitive difficulties, encountering trouble with memory, concentration or making decisions.

Under CalWorks, which provides cash assistance and services to poor families, most recipients must participate in the Welfare-to-Work program, doing work, community service or study activities. The state requires counties to screen participants for learning disabilities, preferably using a validated tool, and refer them for a proper diagnosis by a specialist if a potential disability is detected. Workers must then choose appropriate activities or accommodations for welfare recipients based on their disabilities.

However, advocates say that people with learning disabilities may not always understand the need for the screenings or be able to comprehend the waiver form that they are given as an alternative to the testing. And for people who speak languages other than English, screenings may not be available, depending on the county.

Screening for disabilities, including learning disabilities, is important because a welfare client who has to engage in work experience or study may need special accommodations in order to succeed.

In Marino’s case, for example, once her college found out she had learning disabilities she was provided more time to work on exams, given sound-proof headphones during tests to stem distractions, and an assistive gadget to help her read books. She is now studying for a Bachelor’s degree in women’s studies at California State University, Long Beach. Marino said earlier detection of her disabilities through the Welfare-to-Work program might have allowed her to have a more simplified schedule and help with organization.

“The reason for doing the screening is to make sure people are getting the help they need,” said Jodie Berger, regional counsel with Legal Services of Northern California
and a specialist in non-health public benefits. “If you don’t have the diagnosis, you don’t get the accommodation … If you don’t get accommodation it will make it harder for you to succeed.”

Berger said it’s not clear why some people’s learning disabilities aren’t picked up, although she noted that advocates for CalWorks recipients report frequent problems. She said it could be because applicants are not properly informed of the benefits of taking the learning disabilities screening and waive their right to take it. She said applicants who have difficulty processing written information may also not understand the waiver they’re signing if it’s not explained to them orally.

A recent civil rights compliance review of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency by the state Department of Social Services, for example, found that clients with an “invisible disability” rather than a physical disability often didn’t get the assistance they needed because they didn’t understand the forms they were filling out.

“There’s certainly a number of people who don’t recall being offered the screen or waiving the screen,” Berger said.  “They eventually get referred to a training or education program at a community college and they get picked up by the community college as having a learning disability. And what that means is that they lost a lot of time.”

Screenings lacking for non-English speakers

While inadequate diagnosis affects Welfare-to-Work participants across the board, the issue is especially acute for applicants who don’t speak English as a first language, said Ruthie Gordon, an advocate with Bay Area Legal Aid in San Francisco.

While the state currently has a validated screening tool for English speakers, there is no such tool for speakers of other languages.

Under state regulations, clients with limited English skills who are suspected of having a learning disability should be referred to an outside specialist for evaluation. However, this rarely happens, Gordon said. She said part of the problem is that, even if a learning disability is suspected, it’s very difficult for counties to find trained specialists that can diagnose disabilities in someone from another language and culture.

When learning problems don’t get detected, clients can end up languishing in Welfare-to-Work without being able to succeed at tasks assigned to them, Gordon said. It can also mean they’re unable to fill out program-related paperwork correctly. This can cause them to lose their benefits and even be charged with fraud, the advocate said. She recalled one client from Samoa who faced charges after he submitted forms incorrectly because he didn’t understand them due to a learning disability. The charges were eventually dropped but Gordon said the experience left her client shaken and afraid to enroll in CalWorks again even though he was struggling to support his family.

State working on Spanish screening tool

Michael Weston, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, said the department is not aware of problems with learning disabilities not being detected among CalWorks recipients.

He said all applicants are given the option of a screening when they first sign up, but they have the option to refuse. They can also ask for the screening again later, he said.

“Every applicant is afforded the ability to begin the screening process and to do the screening process, but it’s their choice,” Weston said.

In regards to non-native English speakers, Weston said the state is currently working on a Spanish learning disabilities screening tool, which it expects to unveil in January. He said many counties also use their own tools or translations to try to detect learning disabilities among their clients.

Identifying disabilities can be key to moving forward

When Marino was diagnosed in 2006, at 39, she finally understood why she had had so much trouble in school and the workplace throughout her life. The ADHD interfered with her ability to focus, organize her activities and remember information, while the auditory comprehension deficit made it difficult for her to correctly follow spoken instructions, she learned.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God. Well, that explains my whole life,’” Marino said. “I’m so glad that they caught it.”

Now that she gets helps for her disabilities, she is making progress with her education and is hopeful she can get a good job in the future helping other women.

“You can’t build a house on a faulty foundation,” Marino said of her experience on not getting screened initially. If her learning disabilities hadn’t been identified and accommodated, she would eventually have gone “right back to square one,” she said.

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