Imagine moving to a new country. You arrive after an arduous journey. You don’t speak the language, you don’t have many friends nearby and you don’t know your way around town. You’d love to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy to pick up some essentials for your family, but your driver’s license from home no longer applies, so you’re left to sort out how to use the public transit system or pay for a taxi.
Once you have secured a job and placed your kids in school or daycare, the questions continue to mount: How do you get your children where they need to be? Does the bus get you to work on time? What if your child wants to participate in an after-school activity? Doing it all without the ability to drive is like trying to tackle an unsolvable puzzle.
This is the reality for many refugee and immigrant families when they first arrive in Missoula.
The easy answer would be to apply for a driver’s license. There’s just one catch: many have limited English skills when they arrive, and driver’s education materials have historically not been available in their first languages. Learning the many nuances of road rules in this country is hard enough as a native English speaker who grew up here. Doing it with limited language skills is nearly impossible.
Getting a license when moving from another state is easy. Show a valid driver’s license from elsewhere, prove local residency and you’re ready to hit the road as a Treasure State driver. The same isn’t true for people with valid licenses from other countries. They must, understandably, go through the entire driver’s education process to orient around rules of the road in the United States, including a written and driving test.
For years, DMVs across the state only offered the Montana Driver Manual – basically the textbook for driver’s education – in English and Spanish. Soft Landing staff members and volunteers found workarounds. They printed translated versions from other states and modified discrepancies with local law; manually translated entire workbooks using online translation tools and the support of some clients; and paid people to translate the roughly 120 practice test questions into multiple languages.
It was labor intensive and time consuming, and largely led by one amazing volunteer named Loren Pinski.
But thanks to the hard work of Soft Landing Missoula staff and volunteers and collaborative partnership with the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles and Montana Language Services, a professional translation and interpreter service, the state’s driver’s education program is now far more accessible for English learners across the state of Montana.
As of March 2022, people who speak Dari, Swahili or Arabic as their first language can now find professionally translated Montana Driver Manuals on the DMV website.
This is a huge deal!
Being able to drive a car unlocks an entire world of opportunity for new Missoulians. It opens up job opportunities, allows promotes participation in social events, allows freedom of movement for their children and themselves and supports self-empowerment.
Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin” for any program that receives federal funding. The provision goes even further to say that people with “limited English proficiency must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate” in these programs.
When Soft Landing and other community partners brought these concerns to the state, the Department of Motor Vehicles was quick to acknowledge it needed to provide additional support for new arrivals and immigrants, and it was quick to make the change statewide.
Together, we all moved the needle on services provided by the state of Montana.
There is still some room for improvement. Though people can study and prepare in their native language, they still must take the test in English with the help of a coordinator from the DMV and a translator in the room. This requires a great deal of logistical coordination, and it is still difficult for a student to go through the testing process.
But with the translated materials, things are still significantly easier. Over 20 people have received their driver’s licenses this year and that number continues to grow as people express interest in going through the tutoring and application process.
Huge kudos to Loren Pinski, our outstanding volunteer who has become the face of our driver’s education program, Soft Landing Missoula staff such as Greta Bates who have long advocated for this change and all the stakeholders in the community who made this possible including the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles and Montana Language Services.