BUCKHANNON – The first time Joshua Small took the written test required to obtain his West Virginia driver’s license, his inability to read didn’t hinder him from scoring a passing grade and proceeding on to the actual road skills test.
That was decades ago – when reading-impaired individuals like Small were permitted to have another person in the room with them while completing the written test, or what the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles now refers to as the knowledge examination.
The assisting individual read test questions orally, and if Small didn’t understand the way a question was phrased or wasn’t familiar with a particular vocabulary word, the person reading the test to him would simply rephrase it or give him a concrete example. That one-on-one aid helped a great deal since Small’s vocabulary was – and still is – limited, explains Jennifer Higham.
Higham is a tutor at Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County and has been working diligently with Small – who will turn 71 years old in September – since mid-summer of 2018 to help him again pass the written portion of the West Virginia driver’s license examination.
There’s a reason Small can’t read, she says.
When he was in second grade, he had to drop out of school to work to help his family make ends meet. Still, his lack of schooling didn’t stop him from passing his road skills test, and driving even became an essential part of his job as a former self-employed businessman who maintained an asphalt paving business for almost 30 years.
He was a licensed driver with no license revocations for more than three decades.
So, what happened?
According to the state DMV’s 2019 Licensing Handbook, when a resident’s driver’s license has been expired for more than six months, that person must retake both the knowledge examination and the road skills test – as well as present the same documents a first-time driver’s license applicant would be mandated to provide.
Small’s license expired several years ago leading up to his eventual cataract surgery. Having been told by a friend than an eye doctor would “slice his eyes open,” and if the surgery failed, he might completely lose his vision, Small delayed the procedure until well after six months had passed.
He also had some trouble locating his birth certificate because he was born at home and not in a hospital.
Small has since had successful cataract surgery, and his vision is back to normal.
Higham, who works with Small twice a week for two to three hours at Literacy Volunteers’ location on West Main Street, details all these circumstances with great precision not once but twice in requests for waivers of the knowledge examination – first to former DMV commissioner Pat Reed and most recently to Byrd White, the secretary of the W.Va. Department of Transportation.
Small tried taking the knowledge examination with headphones and an automated voice reading the questions to him but his unfamiliarity with computers – and limited vocabulary – resulted in him failing both times, Higham explains in the letters.
Reed denied the waiver, Higham says, so she tried again on May 21, this time addressing the letter to White, who forwarded it to acting DMV commissioner Adam Holley. Holley passed it along to a case worker in Gov. Jim Justice’s office and ultimately, Larry Cavender, the deputy commissioner of Driver’s Services.
“He is a grandfather and former self-employed businessman … and a driver of 30 years whose license expired leading up to his cataract surgery,” Higham writes in the waiver request. “He is a regular churchgoer and gentle soul, but his quality of life is much diminished because he cannot get around without being able to drive.”
Small can’t drive himself to the store, to church or to visit his five granddaughters and one grandson. He can’t take himself to the movies, on a camping trip or to the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins, where he’d like to go come October, he says with a wistful shrug during one of his regular tutoring sessions in late May.
“I want to go see my family,” Small said. “It’s kind of hard to get around when you haven’t got your own transportation.”
And although he lives in town, walking to Walmart isn’t a snap at his age, he says.
“When you get to a certain age, it’s hard when you’re walking, but I still want to thank Jesus for what He is doing,” Small adds.
He tries to focus on his faith and what he does have in his life – like Higham’s help.
“She’s helped me a great deal,” he says.
Small is an evangelical Christian who was saved in 1971, he announces proudly. He attends the Living Word Church of God on Thurman Avenue, and Frank Spears is his pastor. He walks to church when he can but values independence and doesn’t like inconveniencing other people.
“When it’s really cold in the winter, sometimes my preacher’s son, he would come [and pick me up for church services], but I don’t like to bother him that way,” Small says.
One of his sons travels often for work to Fairmont and Morgantown, and Small doesn’t want to interrupt those trips to ask for a ride to Walmart to get a gallon of milk.
“Maybe I want to go to the store, and he works. He works in Fairmont and Morgantown – all over, he gets called. It makes it hard to get around,” he says.
Higham is frustrated because she knows Small is confident in his ability to get behind the wheel and pass the road skills test. And she’s certain her student could pass the knowledge examination if someone could explain the questions to him by restating them or giving examples.
But that option doesn’t exist with the automated voice that comes through the headphones.
“You can’t ask it to explain further what it is they’re driving at,” Higham says. “When you’re not familiar with the vocabulary, that makes it harder because you’re sitting there, and you’re missing words in the question.
“When somebody is looking at you and they’re saying the sentence and they’re using the language of the written test, and they can see the blank go over your face, they know you need an explanation, but the computer doesn’t have that option.”
Higham says when she rephrases the question, it’s like a light comes on in Small’s eyes.
“Then, he’s able to give me the answer, no problem,” she says. “He understands what it is he’s supposed to do, but there’s a lot of confusion when the questions are given negatively – what are you not supposed to do?”
“Think about how many children in high school take it a first, second and third time and fail before they pass it – and these people can read,” Higham continues. “I feel that people who can’t read are at a super disadvantage, but when it comes to this test, it’s even more so.”
As his case stands now, Small keeps practicing for the knowledge exam, and Cavender, the deputy commissioner of Driver’s Services, has recommended Small take a hard of hearing test should he fail his next attempt to pass the test.
That date’s coming up next Tuesday or Wednesday, June 25 or June 26; Higham plans to drive her student to the DMV in Elkins. She’s happy to help and feels that although she may have missed her calling as a teacher, she still has a great deal to offer students who struggle with reading and writing in West Virginia.
After all, the illiteracy rate in West Virginia hovers right around 19 percent, according to www.proliteracy.org, an organization that promotes adult literacy, and Higham is passionate about fixing the problem because of the link between poverty or unemployment and low literacy.
“What help is there for the under-educated, who wish to work or have found work but cannot get to work for lack of a driver’s license?” she asks Byrd in the second request for a waiver.
But regardless of whether Small passes the test or receives a waiver, he’s made a deal with Higham to keep working on his reading skills afterward.
“His dearest wish is to be able to read his Bible independently,” she writes in one of the letters. “He has stated repeatedly that, if he would just pass the written test (the current focus of our work), he intends to continue with literacy classes to learn to read.
“Imagine that! Wanting to learn to read at age 70!”