Actions speak louder than words. If the DC Council is serious about supporting our non-English speaking residents and allowing the linguistic diversity of our neighborhoods to flourish, they must amend and fully fund the DC Language Access Act. That legislation remains stalled in the DC Council, held back by its current Chair.
Fourteen years ago, the DC Council passed the Language Access Act, making a commitment to parents, grandparents, young people, workers, and small business owners alike that they would be able to access government resources and services which they deserve. However, after nearly one and a half decades since passage, many residents still don’t have the language access support they require. The failure to honor this commitment make it more difficult for our non-English residents to survive in our city and excludes them from important parts of public life.
The Language Access Act, passed in 2004 thanks to the advocacy of the DC Language Access Coalition. Under the law, residents who interact with any one of 39 named agencies, including DC schools, can request services in their preferred language. This was intended to provide protection against exclusion from public benefits on the basis of a person’s ability to read, write and speak English. It was intended to allow parents who do not speak English the opportunity to participate in parent- teacher conferences. It was intended to give 60,000 non-English speaking DC residents a sense of belonging. A place starts to feel like home when one feels comfortable being oneself; and being oneself is inextricably connected to one’s language of preference.
But the promise of this law remains unfulfilled. Too many DC agencies fail to abide by its requirements to provide translated documents or easy access to interpretation services. In particular, parents in DC schools do not get the critical information they need to be part of their children’s education.
Thanks to advocacy led by immigrant high school students, we have an amendment being considered by the DC Council that would strengthen the DC Language Access Act. The amendments would require schools to have a full-time Language Access Coordinator if a specified share of the student body are in non-English speaking families. And it would establish penalties for any DC agency that fails to follow the 2004 law’s requirements.
In the 3 years since its initial introduction, the amendment has been unanimously passed by the Education Committee and Judiciary Committee, but has been bottlenecked by the Committee of the Whole for the past year. The Chairman of the Council, Phil Mendelson, stated at a Candidate Forum held on May 5th regarding immigrant issues that this is because the Bill costs $15 million -- but I think our immigrant communities are worth at least this much in order to be able to fully participate in all our District has to offer.
Regardless of language, including the most common languages spoken in DC -- Spanish, Amharic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Bengali and French – residents deserve to have the right to receive services in their preferred language.
In DC, we pride ourselves on being progressive but we cannot truly be progressive if we are not inclusive. As our immigrant communities continue to face the inequities of displacement and gentrification, lack of labor protections, declining graduation rates and more, language access becomes that much more important. I want to live in a city where everyone can have access to the essential services and fully participate in civic life, without restriction. Language access is key to making this a priority.
Immigrants are our family, friends and neighbors. They are leaders in our community and at a time when many of them are under attack, it’s important that we stand up for each other. I want to make sure everyone not only has a voice but that their voice is heard. A truly inclusive language access program would not only help guarantee people access to the services they need, it would also bring them into the democratic process so they can have a say about what would make their lives, and our city, better.
It’s time to fully fund and strengthen our language access program by passing the amendment to the Language Access Act today.
- Ed Lazere
Originally published in Spanish at El Tiempo Latino: www.eltiempolatino.com/news/2018/may/09/la-necesidad-de-acceso-linguistico/