Who is Entitled to Language Services?

Not everyone understands who is entitled to an interpreter or translator. The government doesn’t make it any easier using their own “language” to explain. Reading Executive Order 13166, I start to wonder if I should be entitled to an interpreter. Does anyone speak “Congressese?”

In a nutshell, the executive order, which was lawstatuesigned into law by President Clinton on August 11, 2000, states that all “programs and activities” that receive federal funds shall be made available to Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals. Now for the complicated part…

The Letter of the Law

As of today, there are at least 2201 programs fully or partially funded by the federal government (and a special federally-funded prize for anyone who can name them all – oops, make that 2202). Of these programs, 37% fall under the Department of Health and Human Services. This helps to explain why there are so many medical interpreters.

But how about the 20% that fall under the Department of Agriculture? Can I really get an interpreter to buy eggs and milk at the store? No way.

Looking back at Order 13166, it states that each government agency and each recipient of federal financial assistance must take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to LEP individuals. Among the factors to be considered in determining what constitutes reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access are:

  • The number or proportion of LEP persons in the eligible service population
  • The frequency with which LEP individuals come into contact with the program
  • The importance of the service provided by the program
  • The resources available to the recipient

The Spirit of the Law

If you are interested, there are other government documents and executive orders that explain “reasonable steps,” “meaningful access,” and “importance of service.”

This is where it gets even more complicated. How does our government choose what is “important?” Order 13166 takes great effort not to say “citizens,” but instead uses the term “LEP persons.” So should immigration hearings or other services for non-citizens be subject to this order? Some judges have resisted this, and insisted that the “LEP person” must provide their own interpreter, but the law is clear: any “persons who, as a result of national origin, are limited in their English proficiency (LEP)” have a right to an interpreter.

Understanding and Following the Law

All this begs the question: if the government sometimes doesn’t understand its own rules, how can they expect ordinary citizens to understand? Worse yet, how could the people who need the interpreters possibly understand?

Fortunately, the obligation is on service providers like you. We can help you understand your compliance obligations for the provision of interpretation and translations, and also how it can positively impact patient satisfaction and save money. For more information, see our blog on How to Avoid Problems with Title VI Audits.

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