Language Access: Good intentions, as yet unrealized.
language access
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David Steib, Staff Attorney

Seven years ago, the DC Council passed an innovative and necessary piece of legislation: The Language Access Act of 2004.  The Act was passed in order to ensure that each resident of the District, regardless of the language that the person speaks, is able to access public services.  The Act recognizes that the District government must be able to communicate effectively with those whom it serves in order to ensure public safety, compliance with licensing and permit requirements, and effective distribution of entitlements.  For example, the DC police must be able to serve a crime victim and investigate the crime effectively whether the victim is able to speak English or speaks only Amharic.

Three years before the passage of the DC Language Access Act, the city of Oakland, California passed a very similar ordinance.  The Oakland legislation, The Equal Access to Services Ordinance, requires that city departments translate key documents into languages that are spoken by a threshold number of city residents, just like the DC Language Access Act.  The two pieces of legislation both require that government entities complete regular reports regarding the numbers of limited-English speaking persons affected by the legislation and regarding the government entities’ degree of compliance with the legislation.

Last month, the city of Oakland settled two lawsuits which arose from the city’s failure to comply with the Equal Access to Services Ordinance. See .  See also  City departments in Oakland failed to comply with the ordinance by neglecting to turn in the annual reports that they were obligated to complete, failing to translate the documents that they were required to translate, and ignoring the hiring standards that the ordinance had created to increase the number of bilingual city employees.

Sadly, the similarities between the ordinance in Oakland and the Act in the District extend even into the realm of compliance.  DC government entities are not meeting their requirements under the Language Access Act.  Last week, the DC City Council held oversight hearings for the Office of Human Rights, the government office charged with coordinating implementation and enforcement of the Language Access Act.  Several advocates from the DC Language Access Coalition, of which Legal Aid is a member organization, presented testimony regarding ways in which the Office of Human Rights is failing to meet its obligations under the Language Access Act.  The testimony presented by the Legal Aid Society of DC focused on two serious problems that the Office of Human Rights is failing to address, as required by law: 1) DC government agencies are not collecting and reporting data concerning languages spoken by populations served or encountered, or likely to be served or encountered, by the agencies; and 2) DC government agencies are not translating vital documents into required non-English languages.  See testimony.

We hope the victory in Oakland will raise awareness of language access issues nationally and inspire other jurisdictions with language access laws (including the District) to take these issues seriously.  We look forward to working with the new Administration to make the promise of the Language Access Act real for our client community.

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