Bread for the City’s limited and non-English speaking clients have struggled for years to get access to important government services at the DC Department of Human Services (DHS). These services include medical insurance for themselves and their children, food stamps, and temporary cash assistance for families with children.
DC already has a law that requires DHS and other DC government agencies to provide interpretation and, in many cases, written translation for customers who do not speak English. But time and time again, our clients have reported that DHS employees refuse to provide interpretation, rely on children to interpret for parents, or simply fail to send important notices about their benefits in their language.
The DC Language Access Act of 2004 was groundbreaking legislation that was intended to ensure the rights of DC’s diverse community to access government services. This law already requires DC government agencies to provide interpretation–in all languages–for limited and non-English proficient (LEP/NEP) individuals that seek to access services, and in some cases government agencies must provide written translations as well.
It seems straightforward: if you’re a resident of the District of Columbia and you are not proficient in English, the DC government is required by the DC Language Access Act of 2004 to provide you with an interpreter, either in-person or over the telephone, whenever you access government services. There’s a reason for this law – the government is there to serve its residents, even those who do not feel comfortable communicating in English. By ensuring that residents can receive interpretation, the government not only honors the dignity of its people, but also effectively communicates vital information. It’s really a win-win.
Bread for the City has written extensively on this blog about the 2004 Language Access Act, and most notably, the DC Department of Human Services’ (DHS) repeated failures to follow the law. Senior Supervising Attorney Allison Miles-Lee testified before the DC Council on July 1st in support of the Language Access for Education Amendment Act, and about what she is witnessing on the front lines each day.
For years, the Language Access Coalition, on which I serve as Bread for the City’s representative, has been talking about amending the Language Access Act to give it more “teeth.” Under the current law, a person who has been denied language access can file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR). The problem is that even if OHR determines that the government agency violated the Act, OHR has no power to force the agency to make changes or to compensate the complainant. As a result, we’ve seen agencies violate the Act over and over again with no sign of changing.