“My Experience with the Language Access Act” by Liliana Pichardo

In 2004, the District of Columbia passed the Language Access Act in order to better serve the immigrant population in the city by providing information in government run agencies in six different languages. The idea behind the act was to provide access to basic services in the preferred language of the person seeking the service. For newcomers, this act would make it much easier for them to receive important services such as obtaining an ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles, but in my experience I see that the act has failed to be successful in helping the immigrant population acquire government services.

In my experience speaking to recent immigrants and observing interactions in different government agencies, I have noticed that the immigrant population does not know that they have the right to receive services in their language and the right to request a translator at most government agencies in the District of Columbia. I believe this lack of awareness among the population that is meant to benefit from this law is the primary cause for the act’s failure to accomplish its goals. This is why I believe that grassroots initiatives are extremely worthwhile and should be pursued since it is one of the few ways the public can learn about their rights.

While I was an intern at the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, one of our projects was a street theater which began with a short interview in which we asked random pedestrians if they had heard of the act. Many of the people we interacted with were unaware of the act and had never used the services; usually they brought their own translators in the form of a friend or child. This is when we all noticed how important it was that we spread the word, inform people of their rights one by one and hope that they passed on the information. Although every government agency carries some posters and cards detailing the right to services in your language, most people were still unaware of the law. However, our efforts to spread awareness through interviews and street theater made more people aware of their right to services in their language. I truly believe awareness is the key to the success of this law and grassroots initiatives like the street theater are some of the most effective ways to inform the public and make them aware of their rights.