Language access

Start a new plan 

Developing greater language access is a process. You have to start somewhere, and in order to fulfill your mission, commitment to community, and obligations, your plan needs to continue to evolve. The following process can help move your organization from having no Language Access Plan to your first written plan. Here is a Language access plan template with sample language that you can use to develop a rough draft of your plan. 

Gather a small, multi-departmental team of staff. Write down two organizational commitments:

  1. Commit to never turning anyone away because they do not speak English.
  2. Commit to improve your capacity every year to serve individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP)and ensure that they have meaningful access to your services.

Limited English Proficiency (LEP) is the limited ability of individuals who do not speak English as their primary language, to read, speak, write or understand English.

Almost every organization already does something to provide language access. Ask your staff what it is, and write it down. (Do you know a language line phone number that you can use? Do you provide brochures in other languages? Do you have at least one staff or volunteer that speak another language that is common in your area?)

Use this analysis to begin to document language access practices that will be enhanced in Step 4. The Points of Contact Worksheet may help you analyze your services and potential points of contact for individuals with limited English proficiency.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing meaningful access to individuals with limited English proficiency. Identify and write down some reasonable steps that will move you toward providing more meaningful language access. The key measures of “reasonable steps” and “meaningful access” are highly dependent on the demographic makeup of your community, the services you provide, the frequency with which individuals with limited English proficiency contact you for services, and the resources available to you.

Some steps should be taken immediately (completed within one year from the date of plan implementation). Some steps will take longer to complete.

Examples of immediate steps
  1. Post “I Speak” cards or posters near entrances to assist visitors with identifying which language they speak.
  2. Post notices that inform people of their right to an interpreter.
  3. Develop a handout to help staff quickly connect to language access resources. Make this handout easily available near phones and public entrances to the building, and anywhere staff are likely to first welcome or meet with persons with LEP. The Points of Contact Worksheet may be a helpful tool to create an easy-to-read chart for staff.
  4. Translate vital documents into the languages most frequently utilized by participants and community members with limited English proficiency. If local programs in your state use the same intake form or other materials, consider collaborating to develop translated versions.

Translated material often requires adaptation for cultural relevance. This may be due simply to vocabulary, for example, some individuals may be more familiar with the terms that in English translate to “family violence,” “wife abuse,” or “mistreatment,” than with “domestic violence.” Other adaptations may be needed to explain common services and advocacy models in the US, such as orders of protection and hotlines.

  1. Train staff on implementing these steps and on your overall Language Access Plan: why it is important and your longer-term vision and steps.
  2. Begin to identify and develop partnerships or collaborations with culturally-specific organizations. (Read More) Remember, when working with another program in your area, don’t just refer individuals with LEP to culturally specific programs. Partner with them – many tend to be smaller and less resourced – and compensate them for their services. As recipients of federal funding, sexual and domestic violence programs have the responsibility to provide meaningful access to LEP survivors.  Share these resources if you are relying on the support of another program for language access. The best practice model is to incorporate the costs of the services that they provide into your grants and share other grant resources to help meet their needs. If you will be submitting grants that include the partner organization, be sure to communicate with the organization so that you do not unintentionally undermine their own fundraising efforts, commit them to providing services to which they have not formally agreed, or exploit their work.
Examples of long-term steps
  1. Explore contracting with a language line to provide access to over-the-phone interpreters for any language, 24 hours per day. (For organizations with crisis lines, emergency shelters, and very diverse populations, this may be an immediate, rather than a long term, step.)

Develop plans to hire bilingual/bicultural staff for the most frequently served populations.

  1. Commit to budgeting for language access in all program budgets during the next budgeting cycle.
  2. Develop a fundraising strategy to increase language access.
  3. Write the organizational policies (Language Access Plan Template, Section 2: Policies and Section 3E: Additional Language Access Policies) and procedures ( Language Access Plan Template, Section 3: Practices) that facilitate and guide the implementation of your language access plan. For example, your bilingual staff will likely be asked by other organizations and systems to serve as interpreters – your organization should understand and train all staff on the differences between advocacy and interpreting, and develop policies and procedures to help bilingual staff to remain in their advocacy role. 

Record your recommendations or decisions in the Language Access Plan Template.

Write down who will be involved in monitoring and evaluating the plan, and how often a formal review/revision of the plan will take place. (Annually is a good starting place until language access becomes part of your organizational culture.) Consider using the “Critical Conversations” process to enhance your Language Access Plan next year.

If you are using the Language Access Plan Template, you may record your monitoring and evaluation plan in Section 4.

Do you already work on strategies for increasing language access in critical systems (law enforcement, courts, public benefits, housing, health clinics, etc.)?

If yes

Write down what you already do for systems change, for example, which systems do you work to change and who are your key partners in that work? Write down the expectation of advocates, managers, supervisors and organizational leadership in working toward greater language access in critical systems. (See “Changing Systems” for tools and resources to enhance your systems advocacy to increase language access and to share strategies and tools that have worked for you.)

If no

There are several reasons why it is important to include systems change in our work to increase language access.

  1. Lack of language access can be a matter of life and death for participants.As you develop more capacity to support individuals with limited English proficiency, it often happens that systems will try to tap into your limited resources instead of fulfilling their own obligation to provide meaningful access. The role of the advocate must be protected and distinct from that of the interpreter. As an organization, you must protect your own resources and advocate for your staff to do the work they have been trained to do.
  2. Accountability is one of the few ways to make systems change that improves the experience of participants with limited English proficiency with or without our help. We must document incidents of challenges and success. We must share this information and demand improvements. Without a push from the community, few systems will change on their own.

Write down some steps that you can take to begin to work on systems change strategies. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Request copies of the Language Access Plans from key systems that you interact with (city police departments, county public health departments, county courts, etc.) Sometimes these are available by searching the city or county website. (Search for “Knoxville Tennessee Language Access Plan,” for example.)
  2. Identify other organizations working on language access issues and ask how you can support their efforts or work together to create greater systems change.
  3. Train staff to advocate for language access in courts and other systems according to their Language Access Plans.
  4. Develop a process for documenting which systems provide language access services, and which do not. Use the information that you collect to recognize systems, departments or individuals who provide strong language access; and to request that those who do not improve their services.
  5. Use the training template provided to develop a training that can be used with personnel in other systems to share information and strategies about increasing language access.

New and existing strategies to create systems change can be recorded in Section 5 of the Language access plan template.

Utilize the Language access plan template provided or review sample language access plans and find a format that fits your organization well.

A draft of the plan should be reviewed by the planning team, supervisors, and management to ensure that the proposed steps and timeline for enhancing language access are feasible and realistic.

See implementation section for connecting the plan to budgeting, fund development, supervision, etc. Once your plans are well developed, you may need to engage your Board of Directors. Provide a brief training on language access issues (including the legal responsibility to provide language access), include revenue and expenses related to enhancing your language access practices into the budget, and obtain commitment from the members to raise the necessary funds to support this effort.