March 21, 2011

Taking Action for Language Access

When I met Mr. M, he was a medical patient and social services client at Bread for the City. Mr. M grew up speaking Amharic and is learning English, and he was referred to the legal clinic because he was having difficulty applying for food stamps from the Department of Human Services (DHS)—a sometimes-difficult process made more complicated by language barriers.

Snapshot of the Amharic-language "Know Your Rights" card, via the Office of Human Rights.
I successfully worked with DHS to get Mr. M approved for food stamp benefits. But DHS continued to send him recertification notices and other vital documents only in English, which he was not able to understand. Mr. M was not just frustrated with his own situation; he was also concerned that other Amharic speakers might face the same barriers he experienced. So we filed a complaint against DHS, alleging that it violated the District’s Language Access Act.

The Language Access Act (PDF of the legislation here) is incredibly valuable legislation that sets the District far ahead of most other jurisdictions with regard to accessibility of government services. The Act requires DC agencies and programs to provide oral interpretation to all their limited- or non-English proficient clients, and to provide written translation of vital documents in languages spoken by 500 people or 3% of the people (whichever is lower) who are served, encountered, or likely to be served or encountered by the agency. The District’s Office of Human Rights (OHR) is tasked with providing oversight about language access and handling language access complaints.

I’m pleased to report that my client’s complaint received a favorable determination from OHR. As a result, OHR gave DHS until the end of May to complete the corrective actions it ordered.

Mr. M. was so excited when he learned about his victory at OHR—not just because changes at DHS would make it easier for him to keep his food stamps and medical assistance, but because this finding will have an impact on the lives of other Amharic-speaking District residents.

But even though Mr. M’s language access complaint had a positive outcome, the process gave me real concerns that people are being deterred from filing complaints because of OHR’s complicated procedures for investigation and enforcement. Consider this: there have been only 17 language access complaints since the Act was passed in 2004, and my client’s complaint was the only instance last year in which OHR found an agency out of compliance with the Language Access Act (another case filed in 2010 was just decided, and it too had a decision of noncompliance).

My case was one of only six findings of noncompliance, but through our involvement in the DC Language Access Coalition and our visits to DC agencies, we know that limited- or non-English proficient people frequently encounter language difficulties when trying to obtain services.

On March 3rd, I testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, which oversees OHR, to share these concerns:

Good morning. My name is Stacy Braverman and I am an attorney at Bread for the City, a non-profit organization serving thousands of low-income District residents each year. Many of those individuals have limited or no English proficiency, and I am here to testify about my experience helping one such client with a language access complaint at the Office of Human Rights.

My client speaks Amharic and is learning English. He had a very difficult time applying for food stamps because of a language barrier. I helped him receive the benefits, but he continued to be sent recertification notices and other vital documents only in English. We filed a language access complaint against the Department of Human Services and received a favorable determination from OHR. Of the three language access complaints filed in 2010, this was the only one in which OHR found an agency out of compliance with the Language Access Act. It was just the fifth finding of noncompliance since the Act was passed in 2004. I am concerned that OHR’s procedures for investigating language access complaints and enforcing its determinations deter people from filing them.

The complaint process was complicated and took eight months—many language access complaints, though, take even longer. My client’s complaint was filed in April 2010. He attended an “intake interview” after which an OHR investigator wrote a complaint, sent it to my client for him to sign and get notarized, and then submitted it to DHS. Over two months passed as I attempted to contact the investigator assigned to the case; eventually I learned that DHS refused to answer the complaint because they believed the matter was resolved when my client received benefits. I had to encourage OHR to continue investigating. Although DHS was given months to formulate an answer, my client and I received just five days to rebut it. We received OHR’s decision over four months later, and were glad to see that DHS was ordered to undertake a variety of corrective actions.

The complaint process was made more difficult by OHR’s unclear procedures. Unlike discrimination complaints, OHR does not publish rules or timelines for investigating language access complaints. Last summer, OHR supplied advocates with an unofficial copy of its language complaint procedures, but these varied significantly from what actually occurred in my case. Complainants are dissuaded when they don’t know what to expect or when to expect it. I hope the Council will provide oversight to OHR and encourage them to publish and follow clear rules for adjudicating language access complaints.

Prospective complainants are also dissuaded because decisions are not enforced. In my case, DHS has until the end of May to undertake corrective actions. While I realize that OHR has limited enforcement powers, and I am in full support of the previous witnesses’ recommendation for appeal rights and a private right of action for language access violations, I am concerned that OHR is not even encouraging DHS to comply with its decision. OHR has a role defined by the Language Access Act: to “provide oversight, central coordination, and technical assistance to covered entities in their implementation” of the law and “ensure that the provision of services by covered entities meets acceptable standards.” My interactions with OHR staff leave me concerned that the language access program there is not providing sufficient agency-level services so that official procedures comply with the Language Access Act. Instead, the program seems focused more on resolving individual issues, and doing so in such a way that they are often not formally docketed as complaints. These informally resolved matters are not required to be reported by agencies, and do not lead to the systemic change the Act was designed to accomplish.

The Language Access Act is remarkable; it makes the lives of countless District residents easier every day. The Council should be commended for passing it. I hope you will continue to work with OHR to make sure that it is properly enforced.

Thank you.

Postscript: We have had good feedback from OHR after the hearing and I hope they will work with DHS to make sure these corrective actions are completed, so that Mr. M’s victory will be even more meaningful.

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