Last week, the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law released a report concluding that many D.C. government entities are still incapable of reliably providing language access services in compliance with local law. The report, “Access Denied: The Unfilled Promise of the D.C. Language Access Act,” is based on information and data collected by the D.C. Language Access Coalition, of which Legal Aid is a member. The release of the report was covered by several media outlets, including Univision/WFDC and DCentric/WAMU.
The report’s findings offer insight into the measure of compliance by the District government with the D.C. Language Access Act of 2004, legislation that requires government entities to provide oral interpretation to all customers and translation of vital documents into languages spoken by populations that meet a certain threshold. Unfortunately, eight years after the passage of the Act, the report finds that government entities are still not able to reliably provide the services required by law. The report’s findings are based on over 250 community member surveys and over 80 tests of city agencies. “Our surveys revealed that 58% of LEP [Limited-English Proficient] community members had experienced a language access difficulty at a D.C. government agency,” stated Michael Ramirez, a Student Attorney with the Immigrant Justice Clinic.
The results of the report come as no surprise to the attorneys at Legal Aid, who are often confronted with clients who have lost their benefits or have been sued because of confusion regarding a language access violation at a D.C. government agency. In the last several years, Legal Aid has helped multiple clients to file language access complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. At Legal Aid, we are committed to helping limited-English proficient and non-English proficient members of the community bring these complaints in order to call for better enforcement of the Act. Legal Aid also takes an active role as a member of the DC Language Access Coalition, and we stand behind all of the recommendations of the recent report, which include:
1) The D.C. Council should create a private right of action for violations of the Language Access Act, as well as a right for complainants to appeal unfavorable decisions, which is currently absent.
2) The Office of Human Rights should report on its own compliance with the Act.
3) Agencies should prioritize and incentivize the hiring of bilingual staff. Such staff should then be trained in effective interpretation techniques.
4) The Office of Human Rights should review Biennial Language Access Plans of each agency more carefully and hold each agency accountable for aspirational goals, which often never come to pass.
5) Agencies should better flag customers who do not speak English and thereinafter consistently offer services in the appropriate language for each customer.
6) Agencies must develop a more robust internal monitoring system to ensure that employees are complying with the law.
7) Each agency should comply with its legal requirement to annually determine the number or proportion of limited or no-English proficient persons served or encountered, or likely to be served or encountered, by the agency.
For more information, or to obtain a printed copy of the report, please contact Tereguebode Goungou at Many Languages, One Voice.