Of the joys of taking American exams as a blind international student: an ongoing story of corporate ineptitude

Everyone has dreams. We all have goals, some more realistic than others. We all wish for a better future for ourselves. And some of us work to achieve at least some of those dreams, no matter how unrealistic they may look.

Most of these dreams consist of smaller pieces. By adding up these pieces, one can build the complete picture they wish to see.

Some pieces add beauty to the final image. They aren’t necessary, but they are nice to have. Other pieces form the base picture and are required for any others to fit. But collecting these pieces is never easy. And it is so, so much harder when one knows they are doing the right thing to get them, and the problems come from the outside. They keep coming, and time keeps moving forward.

Introduction

In the summer of 2017, I had the pleasure to attend the Indiana University Piano Academy. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience in so many aspects. I had slowly been losing motivation for my piano studies and my interest was draining away. Spending three weeks living with fellow aspiring pianists of my age range was an immeasurable motivation boost for me. I learned a huge amount from the teachers and made some amazing friends whom I still maintain contact with. Piano Academy, in fact, was what spawned the dream that started all of this: I decided I wanted to study piano performance at the Indiana University.

The application process wasn’t bad at all. After figuring out everything I needed, I completed my application through the Apply IU system, which, I must say, is very nicely marked up and works beautifully with screenreaders. This is something I sadly cannot say about The Common Application, which I used to also apply to University of Michigan.

The famous exam duo

I submitted my application before the deadline and uploaded my pre-screening recordings through Acceptd (also quite accessible), and received the list of required materials. Two of these were the TOEFL and SAT exams. The TOEFL, administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, a standard English test required for international students by American universities; and the SAT, administered by the College Board, is a test required for everyone in most colleges, similar to the more well-known ACT. As a completely blind student, I obviously could not read or write the regular test materials, so I needed accommodations for both tests. Both ETS and the College Board offered such accommodations through their Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) departments, so I contacted them to obtain my registration materials.

Here is where I saw the first signs of anachronistic behavior:

  • ETS: I was given links to a registration form and a bulletin supplement in PDF format. I was told to print them, complete them and fax or E-Mail the scanned images back to ETS. This, of course, meant I would ned help to fill in the forms. I am the only member of my family who speaks English, so this was not an easy process. Meanwhile, students without disabilities could register through a (presumably beautiful) online form, which would most likely have been more than usable by any blind computer user.
  • College Board: Similar process, except worse. They could not offer me digital files of the forms, so they actually had to mail the papers to my house and had me mail them back.

Both institutions required me to send proof of disability. ETS allowed me to send in a “Certification of Eligibility: Accommodations History”, which was supposed to be filled in by the SSD coordinator, a figure apparently present in all US high schools but not outside of America. I assumed this would be equivalent to a Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI) so I asked mine to complete the form and sent it to ETS, specifying this fact in my E-Mail.

While I waited to get confirmation from ETS, I completed the registration form for the SAT. Since the CoE wasn’t available in this case, I asked my school to print out an official document equivalent to an IEP. This was done within a day, and the papers were sent shortly after.

A few weeks later, around the end of November, I received a turnaround letter from ETS. For no apparent reason, my CoE was not accepted. I was told to submit proper proof of disability, so I tried with the pseudo-IEP my school had given me.

Approved. Whatever that actually means

Within the first week of January, I received confirmation from both ETS and the College Board that my accommodations requests had been approved. At this point, the problems should have been nearly nonexistent. Or so I thought. In fact, the fun was just about to begin.

To make this easier, or maybe because I am lazy, instead of writing down everything that happened in the next two months, I will paste the complaint letters I wrote to ETS and the College Board on 03/07/2018 and 03/09/2018 respectively (names removed).

Complaint to ETS SSD

I WOULD LIKE THIS E-MAIL TO BE FORWARDED TO A MANAGER.

Hello,

My name is Guillem Leon Vivas, and I am a 17 year old student from Spain. I am also completely blind, and as such, I am in need of accommodations for the TOEFL. This is why I had to work with the Services for Students with Disabilities department of ETS.
I initially applied for accommodations with a “CoE: accommodations history” on 11/20/2017. On 11/28/2017, I received my initial turnaround letter. It seemed as if the CoE was not enough documentation, so I resubmitted my registration forms on 12/06/2017 with more documentation.
Almost a full month later, on 01/05/2018, I received a reply from Ms. N*** H*********, indicating that my accommodations request had been approved, and asking me for more clarification as to which ones I needed and how they could be delivered. I replied to that E-Mail on that same day providing the information you requested.
I waited for eleven days, which is way past the 3-5 business days estimate your system gives any customer. After those eleven days, on 01/16/2018, I wrote to ETS again asking for confirmation that my E-Mail had been received. Once again, I received no reply.
On 01/23/2018 I wrote to ETS again with a similar message. No longer having faith in getting a reply, I figured out a way to call ETS directly from Spain and spoke with your representatives. There was seemingly no valid reason for my E-mails not being answered other than “lots of work”. I can understand that the SSD may have to deal with many cases, but I was not only asked on EVERY E-Mail to reply as soon as possible, I was also given an estimate for replies which you did not come even close to respecting.
I received an E-Mail not even 24 hours later offering me the test formats I could take. My choice had already been expressed in a previous E-Mail, but on that same day, I replied to the message and chose a full computer-based test. For the rest of the day, communication went smoothly and the test center was supposedly contacted. As soon as I indicated that I was fine with testing on a weekend, Ms. H********* stopped responding for another few days. On 01/29/2018, I was told that the test center only had Mac computers and I would have to use VoiceOver. I indicated, on that same day, that this was perfectly fine for me, as my main system is Mac OS.
I received absolutely nothing for two weeks after that. On 02/14/2018, I E-Mailed ETS again asking for an update. This E-Mail was never replied to. I called in the next day and spoke to Ms. H*********, who claimed she had not received my E-mail. She said there were some issues contacting the test center. I was quite skeptical about this, as it had already been two weeks and I found it slightly strange that you couldn’t have simply called them. I was not told which test center was being contacted, and I was also told there was nothing I could do on my side. At this point I was getting seriously worried. The university which I applied to has their TOEFL and SAT deadline on February 1st, which I had not been able to comply with because of these huge delays in communication. I was already on an extended period until April 1st.
on 02/19/2018, i called again asking for an explanation. This was the first call in a series of four in the space of three days. On all instances I was told that Ms. H********* was not at her desk and nobody else seemed to have a clue about my situation. At that point I was getting ready to leave for a few days to do my piano auditions at Indiana University Bloomington.
At the same time as I was trying to fix my issues with the TOEFL, I was also having similar (if not worse) problems with the SAT. For that reason I had to contact the ES International School in Barcelona. This school, as far as I now understand, is also an ETS-approved testing center, which I did not know before. The school seemed to have no problem agreeing to test me, and my calls to them were answered promptly and were given relevant responses. I am unable to understand how it is possible that I, as a student, was able to contact the testing center about a similar issue and get it sorted out in mere days, while the ETS SSD department was unable to do it in MORE THAN THREE WEEKS.
I have made 3 calls to ETS in the last two days. Almost predictably, Ms. H********* was not at her desk for the first two. I spoke to agent #61547, who tried to handle my case and forward me to Ms. H*********. When I finally managed to contact her yesterday, there was no reason given for the delay. I was told there had been issues contacting the test center yet again, that ETS would be closed today because of a snowstorm, and that she would try to contact the test center on Thursday. My offer to contact them myself had no effect and she said that would not help.
This, in my view, is not acceptable. I have been following all of ETS’s supposed deadlines and even waiting extra for all the problems I was told we were having. I am now being told that it has been impossible to contact test centers in my city for over three weeks, when I was able to get a hold of them by dialing a phone number. I am being given no explanation as to the unavailability of my processor and I am at the risk of having wasted countless hours and a huge sum of money for application and travel to the university because of problems not only beyond my control, but also beyond my ability to understand. The score review process takes three to six weeks. Having had to deal with your response times, I assume this means at least six weeks. Even if my test could be graded in exactly three weeks, and even if somehow the test was shipped and taken this weekend on 3/10 and 3/11, my scores would still not be in by the university deadline. I cannot believe it is so hard for an international and disabled student to apply for such a standardized test as the TOEFL.

Indiana University has E-Mailed me very recently informing me of my April 1st deadline. I have paid for my application, my audition fees, and have spent months preparing and practicing for my audition. I have spent a large sum on travel expenses for audition weekend and my contacts within the School of Music had no trouble finding ways for me to get around the campus in those two days, even though it was not their obligation in any way. I have followed all of ETS’s instructions, and even though, as far as I understand, it is ETS’s job to provide the test and maintain contact with the student, it is March 7th and I have yet to have my test scheduled, let alone scored. The loss of my application means the waste of a huge amount of time and money. If I do, it will be because of circumstances beyond my control and due to the SSD’s response time and organization. If I lose my application to the Indiana University, I will be forced to take stronger legal measures.

I expect there to be some way to sort out this problem and to have my scores by the April 1st deadline. I will be sending a similar complaint letter to the College Board, as their process has been equally problematic and their SSD department is giving me contradictory information. I do hope this issue will be fixed soon.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Guillem león Vivas
ETS ID: xxxxxxxxxx

Complaint to College Board SSD

I WOULD LIKE THIS E-MAIL TO BE FORWARDED TO A MANAGER/SUPERVISOR.

Hello,
My name is Guillem león Vivas. I am a blind 17 year old student from Spain. I am applying to an American University for the fall term, and thus, I am required to take the March SAT. Unfortunately, so far, it looks like this will be not be possible, for some unacceptable reasons. Not only were there huge delays in processing (which were past your official estimations) and ignorance on the College Board side which caused issues in my SSD accommodations request, but I am now getting completely contradictory information from within the SSD department.

My accommodations request was approved on January 4, 2018, about a month after my forms were sent. Three days after I received confirmation of this fact, on 1/11/2018, I attempted to start the registration process and found my first problem: The system did not accept my SSD number for seemingly no reason. I immediately E-Mailed the SSD department about this fact and received a reply soon after, instructing me to sign up with a random test center and no accommodations so that my SSD number could be put in later (Ref: 180108-000210). I did this and E-Mailed the SSD department again. For some unknown reason, my case was handled by another representative, and I was told to contact the standard SAT department, even though the issue was clearly with the SSD numbers.
I contacted the standard SAT department through E-Mail. The exchange did not make any sense. At first, I told them about a problem regarding the accent on the O in my last name, just to make sure I did not need it as long as it matched my college application. They responded accordingly and asked for some information regarding my SAT application. In my next E-Mail, I provided this information, and explained the main issue with the SSD, as I had been instructed to by them in the “original inquiry” part of the form, which I assumed was the most important. Their next E-Mail completely ignored that original inquiry and kept insisting on the name problem, which I had specified had been fixed. There was no mention to my original inquiry. i responded to the E-Mail and explained the issue all over again. This E-Mail received no response.
At this point I switched to phone calls, as I thought this would make things easier. I called the Standard SAT department on 01/23/2018 and, of course, was transferred straight back to SSD. After explaining the problem again, they found the cause of my issue: the person tasked with entering the information I had provided in the paper-based form I was sent had somehow decided to ignore my second last name, and my name on file with SSD and the one I had typed into the registration form did not match. This issue, even though clearly a problem on the College Board side, had to be taken care of by sending in a name change request form. We did not have an easy way to send a Fax, so it took a bit less than a week to send the request form. This was within the deadline the representative had specified, which was actually march 8th.
I received no confirmation of the fact that the form had been received for almost two weeks, so I called in again. As it turned out, my form had been received, but had not been acted to, again for some unknown reason. A few days later my accommodations were added to my registration and that seemed to be the end of my problems, until I called in to confirm my test center.

The College Board SSD department seems to have very little information on how to react to an international blind applicant. Since the College Board tests are not standardizd here, most of our schools are not affiliated with you and do not have an SSD coordinator. This is something your representatives did not seem to understand. I was being told by different people to find a different test center in my area, and to tell the College Board about my school because taht was the only place where I could actually take the test. I asked a representative to give me more direct information in writing and I was told I would receive an E-Mail. This E-mail never arrived.
A week later, on 01/27/2018, I got my school involved with the process. They called in and asked about testing me, and were told to send a fax saying they were willing to test me to +1 606 336 1489. This number did not work.
The next day they called again and asked for an explanation. They were given a second number, (+1) 609 771 7944, to which they sent the fax. After that, they called back and asked for confirmation that everything was correct. The person they spoke to, however, said that they could not administer my test because they weren’t registered. According to Code Control, the school registration process would take about two to three weeks, which was too long for the required dates, so they asked for an alternative location. We were given the information for the ES International School (ESIS), and we have been in contact with them ever since.
After explaining my situation and accommodation requirements, A**** G******* of ESIS instantly gave us confirmation that they would be willing to administer my test. I called the College Board and informed them of this fact, and they told me that ESIS would have to send a “willingness to test letter” by fax, which they did that same day.
The next day, on 03/01/2018, I had to leave for the United States to perform the auditions at the University I applied to. When I got there, I was told by my school that ESIS had told them that the College Board had said that it was OK for my school to test me. They called the College Board to confirm this, and were told by an agent (quite rudely according to them) that everything was correct and there was nothing else to be checked, and that the materials were to arrive on Wednesday. At this point, everything seemed OK, so we relaxed and waited.

This did not last long. On Tuesday, March 6th, I received an E-Mail from N***** S****, informing me that there was no test center assigned to me. I replied, explaining the situation and telling her that there had been negotiations with both ESIS and my school, and that they could test me. To my surprise and absolute disbelief, her next reply informed me that not only it was impossible for my school to test me, but that no materials had been shipped at all. I immediately called ESIS and the College Board to verify this. The former told me what I already knew: THEY were told that my school could test me and had no idea where this new information came from. The latter, after a 28 minute call, told me they literally did not know anything about this case, and that as Ms. S**** said, it was not possible for my school to administer the test. At this point I could do nothing but wait until the next day to see if the materials arrived. They did not.
As the person who talked to my school earlier had insisted hat everything was correct and did not say where the materials had been sent, we were worried they may have been submitted to ESIS. We called them, but they could not verify this, since they cannot open up the test materials until test day. To this day we have no idea where the materials were sent, if they were sent at all.
I called the College Board again and, predictably, received the same response. I managed to obtain the reference number for the case from my school (Ref: 180228-003279), but by the time I called again, I did not manage to speak to anybody. At this point, fearing I would never get my SAT on time, I E-Mailed the university’s Office of International Services asking for a waiver. I have yet to receive a response from them.
Yesterday, I called again, but only one person was there because of the snowstorm. This happened to be a supervisor, A****, so I thought this would finally get cleared up. I gave him the reference number which supposedly contained the information about the shipping of the test materials (Ref: 180228003279), and he found nothing. He indicated I should call again the next day so that he could talk to the shipping department. I will be doing that later today.

As it stands, it looks as if I will not get my SAT on time. I have no idea how it is even possible for one department to have so much disorganization regarding one case, and how it is possible that nobody seems to be able to handle the case the same way, even though I have been providing my reference number in every call. I have practiced for months for my auditions, gone through the application process and paid application and audition fees, and even traveled to America to perform, with all the associated huge costs, after the College Board told me that everything was settled, which turned out to be untrue. I am having similar issues with ETS with the TOEFL test. These are all problems outside of my control and understanding, and if I do not manage to take my test before April 1st, which is the deadline that the university has given me, I will lose my application and will have wasted a huge amount of time and money, simply because of a lack of organization on your part.
If I lose my application, I will do what I can to take stronger legal measures.

I hope this issue can be sorted out soon. The university’s disability services will also be contacting the College Board today. I am hoping you will at least be able to give them some actual information.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Guillem León Vivas
SSD number: xxxxxxxxxx
SAT registration number: xxxxxxxxxx

After the complaints

The College Board

The IU disability services department did end up calling the College Board. Following their typical anachronistic procedures, they told them that, for security reasons, they would have to get a fax from me stating that I allowed them to release information about the case to the university. Luckily, I had decided to purchase a printer with fax capabilities when the name change request form process happened, so this didn’t take long. I sent it on a Thursday night after receiving the message that instructed me to send it. On Friday evening they had not yet received it because of some queuing system. I asked again on Monday, and…

Surprise! They no longer needed any fax confirmation from anyone. In their own words, “they just wanted an E-Mail from ES international School stating that I could take a make-up test there. Never mind the fax”. Coincidental, given the proximity in time of my complaint letter. Still, this was not the end.

The ES International School was also contacted about this, and was told about my accommodation needs. Somehow, even though the College Board does offer practice tests in word format on their site and I had explicitly requested these, my listed accommodations were only a Braille testbook, Braille writer, and a person acting as reader/writer if needed. The school obviously did not have a brailler, so they tried to get explanations from them. The person who had contacted them became unreachable for a week and a half. In that time, my dealings with ETS reached a conclusion (explained below).

I finally decided to call the College Board SSD and ask anyone who would listen to me. I explained my problem to the first agent that responded to my call, who didn’t even seem to know what Braille was. I spent about ten minutes on hold while she asked her supervisor whether they offered computerized tests like the ones on their own site. She came back and stated the following: “Sir, we do not offer computer-based Braille tests”.

After trying and failing to figure out what that even signified, I tried to explain what I actually wanted. A minute later, she took the bull by the horns and the following exchange happened:

  • Agent: Look. You want a computer-based test, right?
  • Me: Yes.
  • Agent: Yeah. We don’t offer that. Also, the test materials have been shipped to the test center already.

I was left without much room to talk, so I politely ended the conversation, hung up, found an old Perkins brailler I had not used for over six years, and notified the test center that it would be fine to take whatever test they wanted me to take.

I must admit, I am not a very fast Braille reader. I knew I had 100% extended time, so I assumed I would be fine. Then the test center called me and told me they had received the test book. With a label that said “Grade 2 Unified English Braille edition”.

For those of you who may not know, Grade 2 Unified English Braille (UEB) is a stenographic Braille system for English. This means that, instead of mapping symbols to letters, it has a huge number of contractions for common words and letter groups. This makes it extremely difficult for someone who doesn’t know UEB to read it without having prior training. As a Spanish citizen, I had never received such training. Therefore, even though I tried to brush up on my almost nonexistent UEB knowledge before the exam, it was not useful at all.

I took the brailler to the test center, along with some (supposedly) Braille paper I found lying around. Unfortunately, the paper was too big for the machine, so I was forced to have someone else write the responses. FOr the Math section, I took my notes on a Windows laptop the test center provided, which was offline and only had Notepad open on it, while the supervisor watched what I was doing.

The academic administrator of the ES International School, whom I had been in contact with throughout all of this, had the infinite patience required to read me the four sections of the SAT, going over passages as many times as was needed, which took a total of seven hours between two days. How she didn’t chop my head off at some point in all that time, I do not know. Luckily, while you do have to deal with inept and sometimes straight up rude people in these processes, you also encounter amazing people like her.

ETS

A bit after my complaint letter was delivered to the right people, I got tired and started calling ETS at least once every day. The processor for my case finally showed up on the third or fourth call. Magically, the case was resolved on that conversation as well. They offered some kind of make-up test at a center approved for SAT, but not approved for TOEFL. Guess which center that would be?

A few days later, on the week of march 19th, I took the TOEFL at ES International School. This one was delivered in computer format, with nice hyperlinks in the reading sections and everything. I almost enjoyed taking it.

The end. Or is it?

I had taken the tests. Everything was OK. I could breathe. I could stop caring and just wait for my scores. I could be happy. I…

And an E-Mail from ETS arrived, with a ticket confirmation for a TOEFL test.

In some university in New Jersey.

On March 31st, two days after the date on which I received the E-Mail.

This obviously could not be true. I could not be expected to go to the US for my test. But I feared the worst. I feared that the everpresent disorganization and carelessness had made them forget I even took their test at a school here. Or… Something. So I called them.

After 10 minutes of going back and forth with the representative and getting nowhere, I simply asked her to contact my case processor. She did. For once, she was at her desk on my first call. Without giving any more details, she told me to E-Mail her with the universities I wanted my scores sent to and wait.

About a week later, I received my TOEFL score, which was somehow assigned to that March 31st date. I have waited for two days to see if I get any news about my score reports, but so far, I have not. I will call ETS later today.

As for the College Board… Not even three hours ago, the ESIS academic administrator forwarded an E-Mail to me from the person at College Board who seems to be handling my test. In this E-Mail, she asked if I had enough vision to see a computer screen (ESIS and I had already informed them that I was 100% blind) and asking when the brailler stopped working. Why this is relevant, I do not know, but I cannot deal with more score delays.

Conclusion: My current situation

  • My TOEFL scores have been released, but most likely not sent to the university.
  • My SAT scores are nowhere to be seen and the College Board is now asking seemingly pointless questions (again?).
  • The university has given me a final deadline of April 25th for scores.

Thanks to the intervention of some professors, the people at the financial aid office of the University have also assured me they will take me into consideration for scholarships. Due to my financial situation, and given the exorbitant tuition fees for international applicants, I would require a full scholarship to even consider attending the university. Not only are full scholarships extremely rare, but me getting one has also been made much less likely due to all of these delays caused by the College Board and ETS. It is not something I have very high hopes for, but after everything I’ve dealt with, I can’t not try.

Furthermore, I have found out that, if I am not given the full scholarship and cannot study at IU, I will have to take access tests for the Spanish music school I would like to study at. Thse access tests start a day after the 2018 Piano Academy does. This is the last year I can attend the program, and it is something I definitely don’t want to miss.

I still find it hard to believe that these things can even happen, especially with such important organizations as the College Board and ETS. Their disinterest, ineptness and disorganization within their SSD departments has caused me a great loss of time (and faith in humanity). It may also cause me to be unable to fulfill my dream: to study at Indiana University.

Thank you for reading this, and if you ever must deal with these organizations, and you happen to be both international and disabled, best of luck to you. You will need it, and a truckload of patience.

Update: April 17th, 2018

I received my SAT scores on Thursday last week. This time, it really should have been over. It really should have. But alas, it seems I am not a lucky person.

I have to send my score reports directly from the College Board to IU. This process is handled entirely by the College Board and all I have to do is enter a school code, pay a $12 fee and move on. The problem here is that, according to the College Board, standard shipping takes about a week (knowing them this means at least two), and my deadline is April 25th. My other option is rush shipping, which costs around $40 more. In my opinion, given that most of the problems that caused my tests to be delayed to a date after the regular university deadline were not in my hands, I should not be expected to pay over $40 more than everyone else. Yesterday I called the College Board about this and talked to a representative who made me feel ignored. She took about ten to fifteen seconds to respond to me, on three occasions made questions that had already been answered (in one instance she had answered her own question 20 sceonds earlier) and did not help at all with my issue. I will try calling again today.

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