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Refugee advocates highlight obstacles to getting on the road in Georgia
Department of Driver Services responds to concerns around permit tests for non-English language speakers.
Shaista Amani is frustrated. For about three months she’s been working to support 29 different Ukrainian families who have moved here in the last year, through her work as the Social Adjustment and Leadership Program Manager at the Refugee Women’s Network (RWN). And the same obstacle seems to be coming up over and over again: “getting a permit and a driver's license is a nightmare if you don’t speak English.”
The Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) does offer the permit test, called the Knowledge Test, in over a dozen languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese. In September, DDS added Farsi, in response to requests from the community, a spokesperson said in an email statement. 19,555 Knowledge Tests were provided in a language other than English in 2022, according to DDS.
For the road test, DDS specifies that drivers must be able to “read and understand simple English.”
Over 1,000 Ukrainians have moved to Georgia in the last six months, and over 1,500 Afghans have arrived here since August 2021. Amani says many of the families she’s been supporting from Ukraine and Afghanistan, only speak Ukrainian, Pashto, or Dari, none of which are on the list of DDS languages.
Around one third of Ukrainians in Ukraine speak Russian (which is on the list), and many Dari-speaking Afghans can read Farsi, which is also offered as an option, but Amani says the languages are not interchangeable.
“To get the permit, they have to learn English. How long does it take for an adult to learn a whole new language?” It can take awhile. And in the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta where public transportation is limited, not being able to drive impacts where people find employment, or whether they can find employment they can actually travel to, at all.
Amani says she’s tried reaching out to the Department of Driver Services, but hasn’t had success identifying or connecting with the relevant person at the agency. “I have been begging for [more] languages, but it never happened. I don’t know who I should reach out to.”
In response to 285 South’s questions, a DDS spokesperson said in an email that the agency “monitors customer concerns with taking the Knowledge Test and any ADA claims.” And that if “DDS becomes aware of new needs regarding a customer in which English is not their first language, we seek immediate resolutions to overcome the challenge to serve that customer while not compromising the safety of the overall motoring public.”
For those who don’t speak any of the languages on the list - there is another option - according to DDS. They can ask for a translator and arrange to take the Knowledge Test orally. “Anyone needing translator services would make prior arrangements with the Center Manager where they are going to be tested,” said the DDS spokesperson.
Amani said she wasn’t aware that taking the Knowledge Test orally was a possibility. She’s never been able to actually talk to a DDS manager on the phone. “There were so many times they said a manager will call you back, but they never did.”
So RWN has been developing workarounds. The organization began offering an online class in October, where a teacher talks through the permit questions and translates them into Dari and Pashto. When the students are ready, RWN schedules a time for the students to go to DDS and all take their permit tests - in English - at the same time. But the program isn’t scalable, says Amani, “We are a small organization so don’t have that much funding to support other languages.”
The permit test consists of 40 multiple choice questions. Translating those into an additional language requires resources. “Professional translation services are procured for exam translation services,” said the DDS spokesperson. “There are also costs associated with technical programming to the Driver’s License System to add an additional language.”
Driving and getting around the metro area is a challenge for many foreign born Georgia residents, especially for those who are banned from applying for a license because they don’t have legal residency documents. A coalition of advocacy groups led an effort to expand driver license access through House Bill 833 in 2021, but the initiative hasn’t been able to garner enough support to move forward.
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