D.C.’s Language Access Law

A student advocate during a street theater campaign on language access in DC.

The District of Columbia is a multicultural, multiracial, multinational, and multilingual city, which means a large number of D.C. residents are not proficient in English. In 2004, the city passed the Language Access Act to provide limited English and non-English proficient (LEP/NEP) residents with equal access to city services and equal opportunity to participate in civic life. Currently the six languages most commonly spoken in D.C. by LEP/NEP residents are named under the law: Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

There are five important areas to consider when understanding the Language Access Act:

1. Data Collection: Agencies covered under the law must collect data on the languages spoken by their LEP/NEP clients. Once an agency reaches a threshold of 3% of the population served (or 500 clients, whichever is less) indicating a preference for a language other than English, the agency is mandated to provide translations in that language.

2. Translations: Once the language threshold(s) are identified, the agencies must provide translations of vital documents and information.

3. Bilingual Staff: The agencies named in the law are encouraged to hire bilingual staff in positions requiring interaction with the public.

4. Training on Language Access Compliance: Agencies then train senior managers and frontline employees on Language Access compliance requirements and resources such as “Language Line,” which is a telephonic interpretation service currently being contracted by DC government.

5. Outreach to LEP/NEP Populations: Agencies are encouraged to keep their non-English proficient clients connected and informed about the entity’s services. Outreach activities may include public meetings, community fairs, and workshops. Each covered agency employs a Language Access Coordinator to oversee its compliance in these areas and file a report once every two years on the agency’s performance (including best practices and areas for improvement).

The Office of Human Rights (OHR) oversees the implementation of Language Access in coordination with the Office on Latino Affairs (OLA), the Office on African Affairs (OAA), and the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (OAPIA) , as well as the DC Language Access Coalition (DCLAC).