“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.

“The Language Access Act Through the Eyes of a Virginian Latino” by Geraldine Govea

Throughout my time as an intern with the Office on Latino Affairs, I have learned about the Language Access Act that was instituted in the District of Columbia in 2004. Reading about this act as a Virginian who had never heard about it, I realized that DC was taking big steps in the process of assimilation and acceptance for the immigrant population in the District. I found out that DC had numerous offices that dealt with the biggest barrier in communication felt by the country – the language barrier. As a result, the Act permits LEP(Limited English Proficient) speakers to receive information and services provided by the government in their own language. The Office on Latino Affairs, specifically the Language Access Department, is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Act by the 34 agencies under Language Access. I was amazed to find that so many people had this benefit right at their hands and that they had the legal system finally back them up through the demonstration of a little blue card that reads “ I speak (language). I need assistance in my language”. Coming from a Hispanic family I have been used to, from a very young age, translating bills, notices, and important paperwork as well as answering phone calls for my parents; I have now pretty much taken it on as a personal responsibility. Looking back, I sometimes feel that my family has been taken advantage of because of this language barrier and I think of how much I would have liked it if my parents were able to receive these services in their language just by showing an “I speak” card.

In Virginia, translation services are not an obligation for an agency. Agencies carry translated documents or have interpreters only if they pay extra for those services, and even then, the translations are not correct or the interpreter is not always accessible. Health services do a better job at serving the public with information in their language but even then, not all languages are covered and not all information is given. What tends to happen in Virginia is that agencies use their bilingual staff to do the translation and interpretation services for them rather than having these documents readily available to hand out to the people. In the end, the only thing that this brings is disorganization and chaos within the agency and to the public.

Working with the Language Access Department and being able to compare DC and Virginia’s approach to Language Access, I can say that DC has invested much more effort in the idea of equal opportunity to all people. It disappoints me to see that access is limited and that people like my parents will have to move to DC in order to attain these services. To me it seems that Virginia’s “English only” movement is more predominant than the “English plus” movement, thus restraining access for all immigrants residing in Virginia. I only hope for the day that Virginia, along with the other states that are still trying to make English their official language, become conscious of their reality and start helping people rather than evading them, no matter what their language is.

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“OLA, Language Access and One Intern” by Lucia Chile

I first heard of Language Access when a friend recommended me to the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs to fulfill a volunteer assignment for an anthropology class. As a Culture & Politics major, I had spent most of my undergraduate career learning about international affairs, foreign policy and African Studies. I had a limited interest in public policy and no idea about how the D.C. local government was run, despite having lived next door to the nation’s capital for most of my life. Honestly, I had no clue what Language Access was about and only a vague idea about what I was getting myself into when I started work.

I quickly learned and grew to appreciate all that is Language Access. Because of a grueling summer doing a comprehensive and thorough literature review on the subject, I can, even now, summarize the origin and development of the Language Access Program. I can tell you that this program is not unique to Washington, D.C. but cities all over the US are implementing it with success. However, I would be lying if I were to tell you that this entire concept is anything but a work in progress. It’s new, it’s innovative and it’s still in its beginning stages.

I was thrust into this interesting environment as I helped to identify and promote best practices for D.C. government agencies. I got a first-hand look at local government as us interns roamed all over the city heading from agency to agency. We interviewed everyone from directors to employees to everyday citizens. Through delicacy and difficulty, we learned the obstacles and frustrations that non-native English speakers experienced while dealing with the rigorous bureaucratic system. As we all know, government forms are confusing and time-consuming even for educated, native English speakers. The Language Access Act of 2004 requires all D.C. government agencies to provide non-native speakers with all forms and publications in the six recognized languages: Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean. By readily providing information in these languages, the D.C. government is aiding thousands of people in fulfilling their legal requirements and helping them to access programs that are critical to their well-being. This simple concept is constantly foiled by lack of resources and a lack of awareness. It would be too easy and a bit unfair to blame agencies entirely. The problem lies in the absence of dialogue about Language Access in all sectors. OLA along with other actors has worked tirelessly to promote the Language Access Act. It is slowly changing practices in agencies and reshaping the relationship between citizen and agency.

Unfortunately, my part in the campaign to raise awareness and inform people about the resources available to them was short-lived. The experience and knowledge I took from it, however, was rewarding. I saw a lot of grassroots, on-the-street work done to implement policy, something that not many students can experience. I gained a deeper understanding and interest in local government and public policy. I am now a firm supporter of the Language Access Act and the people who develop it. The simple fact that people don’t speak English or don’t speak English well cannot and should not stop tax-paying citizens from having a successful interaction at any government agency. Thankfully, Washington D.C. has the Language Access Act that can only continue to expand and grow in awareness and utility.