Part 2: Summary of legal and ethical mandates for language access

This information comprises the second and final part of a language access resource created and published by Esperanza United (formerly Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network). For more information on language access, please visit our Language Access Toolkit page.

Read part 1 of this blog to learn about why it’s important to provide meaningful language access, who an LEP individual is, and what the ADA requirements are for effective communication.

What are the Legal Requirements for Language Access for persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP)?

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 indicates: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be…subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The U.S. Supreme Court stated that one type of national origin discrimination is discrimination based on a person’s inability to speak, read, write or understand English (Lau v. Nichols (1974).

If an organization receives any federal funds then all programs and activities of that organization are obligated to take reasonable steps to ensure that individuals with LEP have meaningful access to the benefits and services provided by that organization (see: “Meaningful access,” the federally mandated standard for communication with LEP individuals, is defined in the U.S Department of Justice’s Language Access Plan as “language assistance that results in accurate, timely and effective communication at no cost to the LEP individual.”3

Note that Title VI and the ADA cover all of the programs and activities of an organization. For Title VI compliance, this is a legal obligation even if only one program of the recipient organization receives the federal assistance. For ADA compliance, language access obligations apply to all services, including websites, etc.

What elements are important to ensure the quality of language access?

  • Accuracy and effective communication are critical in domestic violence and sexual assault situations.

  • Do not rely on friends and family members to interpret for the LEP victim in important and sensitive interactions.

  • It is very important to avoid using children as interpreters, especially in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, since use of children is not considered effective interpretation and is re-traumatizing for the child and the survivor.

  • Being bilingual is not enough for someone to be able to interpret well, since interpretation requires specific skills. Interpreters should be trained, neutral, and abide by confidentiality and ethical standards.

  • It is important to ensure that vital documents are translated into the non-English language of each regularly encountered LEP group.

  • The best practice for organizations that receive federal funds is to develop a language access plan.

What are the Elements of an Effective LEP Language Access Plan?

  • Conducting and periodically updating the demographic profile of the community

  • Establishing a process for identifying LEP persons who need language assistance when they first come into contact with the organization

  • Proactively identifying ways in which quality language assistance will be provided (for both oral and written information) and establishing a comprehensive plan

  • Training staff and volunteers; hiring bilingual personnel; identifying interpreter services

  • Providing outreach and Education accessible to LEP individuals

  • Monitoring and updating the LEP Language Access Plan regularly

What are some considerations in the use of technology for Language Access?

Interpretation services can be accessed in person, by phone, or video. In general, in-person interpretation is the preferred way of delivering interpretation services and is usually considered best practice.

Various companies provide telephonic interpretation (such as Language Line and others). Many coalitions have found that it is less expensive to negotiate the rates for a larger group of organizations. It is important to budget for language access costs and to properly train staff in the use of telephonic interpreters.

Using machine-translation programs, such as Google Translate, is not generally considered good practice. While machine translation might be helpful for translating some basic words, it should not be considered a replacement for using qualified interpretation or translation services, especially in programs and agencies providing critical services, social services, or any context involving complex issues with medical, legal or social impact. Machine translation may not always be accurate or may fail entirely to translate within the proper context, which may in turn exacerbate language barriers and miscommunication.