15 Years Later, Language Access Still Matters
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Posted by: Nick Lee
Fifteen years ago today on August 11, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166. This law vastly increased access to government services by requiring that Federal agencies implement translation services to aid the limited English proficient. Prior to this order, access to in-language materials and translators were never a guarantee, even in areas with high Asian American and Pacific Islander populations. However in the past decade and a half, federal agencies that have embraced these changes have gone a long way towards ensuring access to important federal programs for the one-third of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are limited English proficient.
Yet the fight for equal language access is far from over. Implementation of 13166 has not been perfect and OCA, in conjunction with our community partners, is working hard to ensure that the concerns of the AAPI community are heard. Part of the problem is educating public officials about how government policies affect our extremely diverse community. For example, although Healthcare.gov provided Chinese language access with good intentions, the website only had the traditional characters available that are common in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, and not the simplified characters, that are in common usage in mainland China. This left a significant number of the 1.6 million Limited English Proficient Chinese linguistically isolated and without full access for the entire community. Earlier this year, OCA wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell asking her to correct this and ensure that these two widely used written languages are made available.
Examples of the most egregious language access violations take place in the voting booth. Voting site monitors have reported errors in translation of voting materials, improper guidance from interpreters, and voters being turned away from voting booths simply because they do not speak English. A denial of the right to vote is a denial of our voice, preventing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from participating in the democratic process.
We took the first steps to correct this problem but it is now time to recommit ourselves to the task of improving language access. If we fail to do so, we are leaving some of the most underserved and impoverished individuals in our community with no way to improve their lives and no voice in our democracy to change it. In many respects, part of our challenge as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is that our community encompasses so many different languages and dialects. We encompass the full spectrum of political thought, economic success, and educational achievement. But to be successful in attaining our common goals, we must come together. When we speak as one, our voices cannot be ignored. When we act as one, our hard work is rewarded.
Michael W. Kwan
OCA National President