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Language Access is a Human Right

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.

Attorney Allison Miles-Lee, hard at work!

However, this process does not always work—especially at the DC Department of Human Services (DHS), where Bread for the City clients have been denied language access services on numerous occasions. When this happens, there are real-world consequences. BFC clients have had their food stamps, TANF, and health insurance all wrongly denied or terminated because they were not provided with information and paperwork in a language they could understand.

Because of these failures, Bread for the City Senior Supervising Attorney Allison Miles-Lee has filed six language access complaints against DHS, four of which were fully investigated by the Office of Human Rights (OHR)—and in each case OHR found that DHS had violated the Language Access Act. But while this has created an important paper trail of District government failures, it has ultimately been a symbolic gesture, as OHR has no power to enforce its own determinations that the government has failed to provide language access. So, seeking a new way to ensure that the law is enforced, on Wednesday, October 7th the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm Hogan Lovells filed a Class Action lawsuit in DC Superior Court against DHS.

Bread for the City is involved–as “of counsel”–in the lawsuit for one reason: we want to protect our limited and non-English proficient clients from discrimination. But the real heroes of this story are the two women, Minerva Nolasco and Maria Amaya Torres, who agreed to be named as plaintiffs. It takes a great deal of courage for immigrants to stand up to government agencies, and Ms. Nolasco and Ms. Amaya deserve all the credit for speaking up in order to hold DHS accountable. They have good reason to be involved: Ms. Nolasco was denied prenatal care after her health insurance was wrongly cancelled, and Ms. Amaya’s food stamps were erroneously recertified at a much lower level than the amount her family should have received. In both cases, each woman had requested an interpreter; in both cases, they had been denied this service; and in both cases, they and their families suffered. language-access-coalition-520x130

Bread for the City stands with Ms. Nolasco and Ms. Amaya. Our hope is that the Court will determine that DHS violated the DC Human Rights Act by violating the Language Access Act, which will give it the ability to take enforceable steps to bring DHS into compliance—thus improving language access for all DC residents. As Allison says, “Bread for the City is hopeful that this litigation will lead to real change and will prevent the cycle of unnecessary termination and denial of benefits that impacts so many of our limited and non-English proficient community members.” We look forward to working with the plaintiffs, OHR, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, and Hogan Lovells to continue this fight.

Allison’s work is made possible in part through private and public funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.

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