A Lack of Reasonable Accommodation Causes a Blind Man to Fail Citizenship Test

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Chicago-area resident Lucio Delgado was excited about the prospect of becoming a U.S. citizen in May last year. He prepared for his citizenship test, learned English, and practiced taking Braille exams that he found on U.S. government websites. Delgado is blind and uses Braille text to communicate. However, when Delgado arrived to take his test, there was no Braille version available for him.

According to CBS Chicago:

“On May 21, Delgado completed the oral portion of the exam and spelled the words like Thanksgiving and president correctly, but failed the test after a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] officer couldn’t provide Delgado with a Braille copy of the exam.

Unfortunately, you were unable to read a sentence in the English language,” a letter sent to Delgado by USCIS said. “Regrettably, you were unable to achieve a passing score on the reading portion of the naturalization test.”

The Effect of the Lack of Reasonable Accommodations

One big problem at test taking time was that USCIS agents and employees did not accept Delgado’s explanation that he was blind and needed Braille text to understand written documents.

“The USCIS didn’t believe Delgado was blind, despite a visit to the optometrist prior to taking the exam. Instead, officers at the USCIS said he needed to visit an ophthalmologist instead, something Delgado couldn’t afford without health insurance. “They still didn’t believe I was blind,” Delgado told CBS Chicago.

As the New York Times added:

“On May 21, the day of the exam, he traveled two hours on public transportation to the agency’s office in downtown Chicago. He said he aced the civics part of the test — no wrong answers — and completed some of the English exam orally.

But when it was time to test his reading skills, an agent told him that the agency did not have the materials in Braille and offered a version of the test in large print instead. Delgado made calls to Citizenship and Immigration Services and eventually and on Sept. 17th, he was able to set up another appointment in Chicago. Once there, agents told him they would probably be able to smooth things out so he could be naturalized.”

In February 2020, Delgado received an envelope from USCIS. He hoped the contents would inform him that he had fulfilled his dream and was a brand new U.S. citizen.

However, according to the New York Times:

“Enclosed were the results of a citizenship test that Mr. Delgado, a 23-year-old green card holder from Mexico, thought he had aced. He and his sister, who accompanied him, opened the envelope in the post office.

The letter inside said he had failed the reading portion of the test and was ineligible for naturalization.

Mr. Delgado was crushed.

At an appointment with federal agents months after [the test in May 2019], he explained the problem and thought [USCIS employees] were prepared to help him… [Given his many disappointments], he then decided to share his story publicly.

I thought, ‘Well, I doubt I am the only blind immigrant or immigrant with disabilities who has been denied his or her naturalization request due to a mistake,’ he said on Friday [March 6, 2020].

The exposure seemed to work: The immigration authorities scheduled an appointment with Mr. Delgado for next week. But his lawyer, Darcy Kriha, said publicity might not work for everyone trying to navigate the daunting bureaucracy that is often associated with immigration.

“It’s not hard to imagine that there have been undocumented people and their families who have not come forward because they’re afraid of being deported,” Ms. Kriha said. “We’re going to be working on trying to figure out how widespread the problem is and how it impacts undocumented individuals who have much more to lose.”

In a March 6, 2020 statement, USCIS stated that the agency “has policies in place to ensure reasonable accommodations are provided for people with disabilities when requested and we make every effort to ensure that these policies are followed at all times. If USCIS becomes aware of an error in adhering to these policies, we make every effort to ensure corrections are made.” The agency also stated that they would provide English tests in Braille for any blind or visually impaired citizenship applicant who requested them.

Citizenship and Immigration Services said that they were “unable to comment on individual cases due to privacy protections,” so it is unclear what will happen when Mr. Delgado goes for his third appointment next week.

Mr. Delgado is not sure if he will be asked to take the English reading test in Braille, or at all. But he has been cramming for the exam — again — just in case.”

Understanding Effective Communication

There are additional issues at work here.

Not all blind people communicate through Braille. Indeed, only a minority of blind people can read and understand Braille. Tragically, Delgado’s situation is not novel or unique. Many organizations do not provide the necessary reasonable accommodations for blind people, which can include testing materials in Braille. They also tend make the mistake in assuming that just because someone is blind, she must be able to read and communicate through Braille, a generalization that is often inaccurate.

In addition, USCIS problems with a lack of reasonable accommodations had previously been identified in a 2013 Department of Homeland Security directive to its sub-agency and in an 2018 USCIS internal memorandum. 

According to the Washington Post, USCIS had been flagged for its “failure to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities…” The problems included an ineffective process for requesting accommodations, a “variety of issues” relating to sign language interpreters, and a failure to provide materials in Braille.

In Delgado’s case, the lack of reasonable accommodations also included being required to prove he was blind and being directed to visit an ophthalmologist when he had already seen his optometrist. Such a requirement is unduly burdensome to a person with disabilities and is not required by federal law.

As a federal executive branch agency, USCIS is not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, all federal executive branch agencies are required to comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a precursor to the ADA. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits disability discrimination with requirements that are very similar to those of the ADA.

When Mr. Delgado returns to take his citizenship test, hopefully USCIS will have had its disability discrimination epiphany and will be ready with a Braille version of the U.S. citizenship exam for Mr. Delgado to pass.

© Bruce L. Adelson 2020. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive

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