California Advocates Obtain Comprehensive New Policy on Screening, Evaluating and Providing Program Modifications to CalWORKS Clients with Learning Disabilities

From the December 2001 issue of Welfare News

On October 17, 2001, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) issued a comprehensive statewide protocol on screening, evaluating and providing reasonable modifications for all new and existing CalWORKs clients with learning disabilities.  The policy was issued in the form of an “All County Letter” by CDSS to all county welfare directors and welfare-to-work coordinators in the State.  The protocol is by far the most thoughtful and protective policy of its kind in the country, and it should serve as a useful model for other advocates seeking to make welfare programs more responsive to the needs of clients with learning disabilities, who are a sizable portion of the welfare population.  Given the high numbers of clients with learning disabilities in TANF programs, advocates have a strong argument that the policies and procedures in the All County Letter are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as reasonable modifications, because without these policies, clients with learning disabilities will not have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from TANF programs. The All County Letter is entitled  “Learning Disabilities Screening and Evaluation in the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) Program,” All County Letter No. 01-70, and is available at

The Protocol

The protocol requires CalWORKs to screen all incoming and existing CalWORKs participants for learning disabilities using a screening tool validated for use with TANF clients. Screening must be offered to all new clients at the time of the first welfare-to-work contract and to existing clients at annual eligibility redeterminations, or earlier when clients ask to be screened, disclose a learning disability or inform the welfare program that they were in a special education program at school.  It must also be offered to all clients in the midst of good cause or other compliance determinations or the sanction process; to clients who fail to maintain satisfactory progress at welfare-to-work activities; and whenever a worker suspects a client has a learning disability or processing difficulty.  County welfare agencies are also allowed to screen clients who fail to progress in employment after they stop receiving cash assistance.

Clients have the right to refuse screening and cannot be sanctioned for their refusal.  When a client declines or is reluctant to be screened, the welfare program must explain what learning disabilities are; what areas are tested in an in-depth assessment and who performs the assessment; and the types of program modifications that are available to clients in the program that have learning disabilities. Screening must be conducted by trained designated staff, preferably those who have an ongoing relationship with the client. CDSS recommends one particular screening tool, developed in Washington State, but allows counties to use another validated tool if they provide training for staff on how to administer it.

Clients identified through screening as having  possible learning disabilities must be referred for an in-depth learning disability evaluation conducted by a trained professional using validated testing instruments. Clients who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities in the past, and those with suspected learning disabilities must also be referred, even if the screening did not indicated a possible learning disability. The welfare agency must ask clients who are referred for evaluations to provide records of any previous learning disability evaluations, relevant medical evaluations and special education records to the evaluator, though a client is not required to do so. The policy makes clear that it is the responsibility of the local welfare agency to develop resources for these evaluations, by contracting with local or regional evaluators if necessary.  In other words, welfare agencies cannot shirk their responsibility by claiming that they couldn’t find anyone to conduct the evaluation.

The evaluation must include a detailed description of the client’s strengths and deficits, recommendations for additional services, accommodations and assistive technology for the client. The welfare agency is required to review the evaluation and take it into account when drafting of the welfare-to-work plan and consult with the learning disability evaluator or other specialist if they have questions about the evaluation.  Existing plans must be modified to take account of the evaluation findings.  The welfare program must give a copy of the evaluation and the evaluator’s recommendations to the client and must discuss appropriate work activities and reasonable accommodations to the client. The policy specifies that accommodations can be paid for with CalWORKs funds or other funding sources if they are available and the client qualifies for them, including Welfare-to-Work or Workforce Investment Act funds. The evaluation must be treated as a confidential medical record, though with client consent the welfare agency can share it with others on a need-to-know basis.  Welfare agencies are required to forward it  to another county’s welfare agency when a client moves, if the client agrees.  If the evaluation indicates that the client may have physical, mental or other conditions, the welfare agency must discuss the findings with the client, refer the client to evaluation or treatment for these conditions as needed, and develop a welfare-to-work plan consistent with these conditions.

When a client is diagnosed with a learning disability during the good cause or sanction process, the welfare agency must consult with the evaluator and determine if the client’s disability contributed to his or her failure to participate. If so, the client must be considered to have good cause and cannot be sanctioned, and the welfare-to-work plan must be modified to take account to the evaluation findings.

The protocol discusses a number of reasonable modifications clients with learning disabilities may be entitled to, including a waiver of job search for clients with verified learning disabilities if the program determines that job search will not be beneficial for the client; shortening job search if it turns out not to be beneficial; and allowing clients to participate in the primary welfare-to-work activity, or all welfare-to-work activities, for fewer hours.

The History of the Protocol

Advocates played a large role in getting CDSS to develop and issue the protocol. More than a year before the All County Letter was issued, CDSS established an Advisory Workgroup on Learning Disabilities to make recommendations to the State about how to improve services to CalWORKs participants with learning disabilities. The Workgroup included representatives of CDSS and county welfare departments, the State agency that oversees community colleges, the Employment Development Department of the State Unemployment Insurance program, and the Department of Rehabilitation, legislative staff, and other advocates, including Jodie Berger from the Welfare-to-Work Advocacy Project of the Legal Aid Society/Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

The group met monthly, and had guest speakers on topics such as how to define learning disabilities, the validated screening instruments available, and the types of program modifications often needed by individuals with learning disabilities. The goal of the group was to identify a series of recommendations for CDSS on how to identify and evaluate CalWORKs participants with learning disabilities and how to remove barriers to full participation by these individuals in the CalWORKS welfare-to-work program. Most of the recommendations made by the group were adopted by the State.  One interesting fact is that a number of the state and local government officials who participated in the work group had learning disabilities themselves or had children with learning disabilities. Advocates engaging in policy advocacy on disability rights issues should keep in mind that disabilities cut across gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, political parties and socioeconomic groups.  Sensitivity to disability issues can come from many quarters.