What does meaningful access to language mean?
Thursday, December 14th, 2017
Limited English Proficiency (LEP) refers to individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English. To determine which individuals may have limited English proficiency, consider the following:
- English is not their primary language;
- They have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English;
- There has been a determination by that person of their need for language assistance.
It is important to note that it is the right of the individual and therefore the individual, not an agency, determines the need for language access.
Approximately 25.2 million individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) currently live in the U.S., many of whom are immigrants. The number of individuals with LEP living in the United States has increased by approximately 80 percent between 1990 and 2010. While the majority of residents with LEP are concentrated in traditional immigrant-destination states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey), other states have experienced a significant increase in the percentage of residents with LEP. For instance, Nevada, North Carolina, and Georgia saw sharp increases in their populations with LEP, with growth rates of over 375%.
The US Department of Justice guidance states, “[m]ore affirmative steps must be taken in programs where the denial or delay of access may have life or death implications than in programs that are not crucial to one’s day-to-day existence.” This means that the more important the program or activity is, the greater the obligation to provide language services. The services provided by domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking organizations have been determined as “necessary to protect life or safety.”
Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency,” was issued in 2000 and explicitly requires federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to implement meaningful language access policies and practices in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
There is no “one size fits all” standard for meaningful access. Rather, it is program-specific “reasonable steps” based upon careful analysis of the four factors identified in a US Department of Justice guidance document developed for all recipients of federal funds:
- The number or proportion of survivors with LEP eligible to be served or likely to be encountered by your program.
- The frequency with which survivors with LEP come in contact with your program.
- The nature and importance of the program, activity or service provided by the organization to people’s lives.
- The resources available to your program and the costs associated with providing language access.
Utilizing the four-factor analysis helps you establish what your obligations are, but it is also important to set a measurable goal to help you and your organization implement steps toward greater language access. This is different than creating a plan; it’s the goal to which you hold your plan.
For example, let’s imagine that the focus of your mission is to end domestic violence and you want to work toward serving all survivors in your area. Your community analysis reveals that and 20% of community population is Hmong. You may want to work toward a shift in your services so that 20% of survivors accessing services are Hmong (thereby more fully reflecting the communities in your area). The steps that you will plan will require engagement with Hmong community leaders, and Hmong-serving organizations to understand what types of services and support you will need to offer to be more accessible to Hmong survivors.