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Language Access Program of the DC Office of Human Rights Releases 2019 Compliance Review

The Language Access Program of the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights (OHR) recently released its 2019 Compliance Review.  The report, found on the Office’s website, serves as a valuable resource to anyone interested in learning more about DC’s limited English proficient population, about the city government’s obligations under the DC Language Access Act of 2004 (the Act), and about the performance of city government agencies to meet those obligations.

For public interest and pro bono lawyers, it is important to understand where agencies stand with regard to language access. If your housing client is limited English proficient, you may want to review the language access score for the DC Housing Authority (if your client is in public housing) or for the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (if your client needs a housing code inspection). This is just one example of the myriad ways that legal services clients interact with DC government agencies.

The Act

The District of Columbia was one of the earliest state or local jurisdictions to pass its own language access law in 2004. The law established a framework for ensuring that limited English proficient individuals can benefit from government services, programs, and activities at a level equal to English proficient individuals. That framework includes identifying covered entities with major public contact and requiring them to designate a language access coordinator and to establish a language access plan. In addition, the framework established a Language Access Director within the Office of Human Rights to help the city comply with the Act by performing a number of duties, including tracking, monitoring, and investigating public complaints regarding language access violations at covered entities.  In addition to establishing this useful framework, the Act provides certain rights to limited English proficient individuals who interact with covered agencies: oral language services and, for some languages, translations of vital documents.

Contents of the Report

The report does many things, including:

  • Providing information about the demographic makeup of the District’s residents, broken down by national origin and ability to speak English.
  • Listing the covered entities and the covered entities with major public contact, as well as the differences in obligations as between the two groups.
  • Highlighting the work of the Language Access Program at OHR with regard to training, technical assistance, and community engagement.
  • Comparing language access complaint outcomes over the last several years.
  • Issuing scorecards to 38 covered entities with major public contact, and assessments of 23 non-major public contact entities, to measure their compliance with the Act in 2019.
  • Detailing the total number of encounters with limited English proficient individuals across all District government agencies, including data on usage of telephonic interpretation through LanguageLine.

Findings

Consistent with Census data, the vast majority of the city’s in-person and telephonic interactions with limited English proficient individuals were for those who spoke Spanish, French, and Amharic. Other languages with high rates of interaction were Vietnamese and Mandarin. Across all District government agencies, there were 183,387 encounters with limited English proficient or non-English proficient individuals.

With regard to covered entities, none were found to have sufficiently accessible websites. Some entities, such as the Department of Forensic Sciences and the District of Columbia Housing Finance Agency, failed to meet any of the baseline compliance areas established by OHR.

OHR, in partnership with the Equal Rights Center, conducted field tests to assess the accessibility of many covered entities with major public contact. Only 44% of the telephone field tests provided adequate interpretation services. Overall, the scorecards for the agencies with major public contact showed mixed results. Notably, the OHR commended the Office of the People’s Counsel on achieving a perfect annual review compliance score of 12/12 for the past two years. Several vital agencies did much worse, such as the Department of Health Care Finance (3/12) and the Department of Corrections (3/12).

The DC Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) decides cases involving unemployment compensation, Medicaid, and many other matters. This agency had 572 encounters with limited English proficient individuals in FY19. The overall score for OAH was 11/12, and the Language Access Program stated that it was “pleased with OAH’s continued commitment to uphold the Language Access Act.”

With regard to public complaints around denials of language assistance or violations of the Act, the following covered entities each had two inquiries filed against them: Metropolitan Police Department, District of Columbia Public Schools, and District of Columbia Housing Authority. OHR issued only 1 determination in FY19, and it was against the Metropolitan Police Department (which was found to be in non-compliance with the Act for failure to provide translation service).

Going Forward

The report states that in light of the pandemic, the Language Access Program team at OHR, “firmly believes that more than ever, the District of Columbia must ensure it meets the needs of our city’s most vulnerable populations, particularly residents who face language barriers in accessing their rights to government services.”

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of language access in many ways. We cannot protect ourselves from a contagious disease unless every person, including a person who communicates in a language other than English, understands how to stop its spread. We cannot consider ourselves to be a humane and equitable society if lifesaving services and information are disproportionately withheld from those who are limited English proficient. A full recovery from the pandemic will require robust language access services to ensure that everyone is able to access relief efforts and vaccines.

If you are aware of an instance in which someone did not receive interpretation in their language at a DC government agency (or did not receive a vital document translated into a common language), there are several possible avenues to pursue. You can discuss the matter with the language access coordinator of the agency to request an immediate remedy. Regardless of how the coordinator responds, you can file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights. In addition, if you are interested in learning whether there are ongoing efforts to work with particular agencies on language access concerns, you can contact the DC Language Access Coalition by writing to dclaccoordinator@gmail.com.