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BFC Supports the Language Access Amendment of 2015

language access coalition

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.

As we’ve spoken about on our blog before, language access means that DC government agencies must provide meaningful access to services for limited and non-English speaking customers. This includes oral interpretation and written translation of vital documents.

Today, Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill to amend the Language Access Act. The highlights of this bill that the Language Access Coalition and Bread for the City wholeheartedly support are:

1) Provides a private right of action for aggrieved people to sue a DC government agency in DC Superior Court if the Act is violated (like with other discrimination claims under the Human Rights Act), which can provide a complainant with injunctive relief and compensatory damages (money),

2) Gives OHR the power to fine government agencies that are found to have violated the Act, with the money going into a fund to support language access, and provides a right to appeal an OHR determination to the Office of Administrative Hearings,

3) Provides additional language resources in DC public and charter schools, such as increasing the number of language access coordinators in schools and providing comprehensive trainings for teachers and counselors, and

4) Explicitly adds the DC Council and the Executive Office of the Mayor to the list of covered entities that must provide language access.

Why is this important? Within the past year or so, I filed language access complaints on behalf of four clients against the Department of Human Services (DHS), and OHR foundlanguage access that the agency violated the Act in each of these cases. Yet, the agency continues to deny language access to DC residents.

For example, one of my clients, Ms. Fernandez (name changed to protect her identity), returned to DHS to recertify for food stamps while awaiting a decision on her initial complaint, and she showed the DHS worker a Spanish “I Speak” card, which was given to her by the OHR investigator to help articulate her language needs. Nonetheless, the worker refused to provide Spanish interpretation, and Ms. Fernandez’s food stamps were unnecessarily terminated again.

This failure to comply with the law must stop immediately. Bread for the City applauds Councilmember Grosso’s proposal of this amendment, and asks that the DC Council give it their unanimous support.

*Allison’s work is funded, in part, by the DC Bar Foundation /DC Legal Services Grant Program – Private Grants.

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