The Clinton administration signed Executive Order 13166, to clarify what legal opinion had long upheld, that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required that any entity in receipt of Federal Funds provide language access services to those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Two decades later, there have been some advances, but American demographics are constantly changing and the demand for more inclusive service continues to rise.
While Federal law requires public service offices and institutions to ensure language access for those who are LEP, interpreter services are inconsistently available and often nonexistent. For example, in the Allegheny County Court of Common Please, the President Judge determined that the institution was fundamentally racist because they did not consistently ensure access to language services for those who did not speak English or who were LEP.
Several things have improved since EO13166 was signed, but sustained high rates of immigration and the dispersion of LEP individuals to new destinations – apart from the traditional immigrant-destination states of California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois – create a context that is forcing the public sector to make new efforts to minimize communication issues and include the entire American population.
Linguistic diversity is in crescendo
According to the American Community Survey (2012-2016), among the 311.1 million people aged 5 and over, 63.172.059 (20.3%) spoke a language other than English at home. This is close to a 25% increase from the 2000 Census. As reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in the American Community Survey, LEP people represented 9% of the overall U.S. Population. As the LEP population grows year after year, so do language barriers.
Inequality in language access
The pandemic brought some disadvantages for LEP people into the spotlight. There are numerous cases where the absence of translation or interpretation for non-English speaking people has truly become a life-or-death concern.
“In western Washington, unbeknownst to the family of a man hospitalized for COVID-19 who spoke only Spanish, doctors made plans to take him off a ventilator. When the man’s bilingual son finally learned what was happening, he got help from a disability rights group and requested a new treatment plan for his father, who survived”, says Joana Ramos, a health policy consultant and a founding member of the Washington State Coalition for Language Access.
As stated by the specialist, the University of Washington Medical Center, who developed a program that provides language assistance to patients, found higher infection rates among LEP patients. Spanish, Amharic and Khmer speakers had infection rates roughly five times higher than English-only speakers.
In these past 18 months, translated information about COVID-19 and protective measures have become available in many more languages, but other issues come with virtual care, especially with telehealth services and ensuring language access.
“We need the state government to take language access seriously. This starts with enforcing civil rights laws and state language access laws. We need the government to increase support for the Hawaii Office of Language Access (OLA), which was designed to implement and enforce those laws. OLA should be able to offer in-person interpreters who can travel to people’s homes”, tells the Chuukese interpreter Philios Uruman, who complains about the difficulties that people from Micronesia find when they arrive in Hawaii.
“Confusion and lack of access to health care meant that Micronesians accounted for one-third of all COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, making us five times more likely to catch the virus. Of course we weren’t informed; everything on the news is in English”.
Impact of linguistic exclusion in elections
In 2018, consultants believed that language accommodation – or the lack thereof – could swing 20 competitive congressional elections. Yet, outside immigrant-advocacy circles, few seem to have noticed.
Dan Miller, a senior data analyst at Global Strategy Group, a polling company linked to democratic politicians, considered the importance of the unaccommodated LEP voters: “Ballot materials not being available in a usable form for even 5 percent of the population could make a difference. It’s especially important this year, because there’s some possibility that control of the House could be decided by only a few seats”.
Also, Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, addressed these difficulties: “At the end of the day, without meaningful language assistance, many voters simply would not be able to cast a meaningful and effective ballot”.
Although Section 203 – added in 1975 in the Voting Rights Act – provides that “whenever any State or political subdivision [covered by the section] provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language”, reality shows that this is not working in practice.
Two decades and waiting
22 years later, there is a significant part of the American population that is still feeling excluded by language and who are calling on federal agencies to be proactive and deal with these issues that create access barriers to public services and resources. The need to identify these issues, and to develop and implement systems that provide these services, is still strongly present. LEP people deserve meaningful access to these resources, and with the availability of professional linguists, interpreters, and translators, there is no justification to continue putting it off.
A few years ago, one voter was accused of trying to influence another man’s vote while translating the monolingual English ballot into Spanish for a LEP man who was also waiting in line to cast his vote. Poll workers called over a police officer who resolved the situation by ordering them not to talk in line. As the accused man put it, “I feel like it’s time that we have bilingual ballots, and if we had them, this situation would’ve never gone down. It doesn’t cost much to get a simple ballot translated… Why is it our county hasn’t done it?” We can’t help but agree.