From hospitals to courtrooms, new tools to topple language barriers

A medical interpreter assists a patient in Tonga during an eye exam. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Valcarcel / U.S. Navy)
(Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Valcarcel / U.S. Navy)

Imagine walking into an emergency room or doctor’s office needing medical care, and every sign and piece of paper handed to you is in a different language.

You struggle to talk to the front desk clerk, who only speaks a broken version of your language. You take your best guess at how to fill in the blanks on the intake form. On top of being sick, you’re anxious because you don’t know what you’re signing. The healthcare system just doesn’t speak your language.

This is a common situation for non-native English speakers. These, and other similar disparities, are what the Washington State Coalition for Language Access (WASCLA) was created to prevent.

WASCLA was founded in 2005 as a group of lawyers, law enforcement personnel, interpreters, translators and court workers dedicated to improving immigrants’ access to services.

The coalition’s main aim is to bring service providers in Washington into compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in federally funded programs. In 2000, Bill Clinton issued an executive order to improve Title VI protections for people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), and WASCLA was created with the support of the Washington state legislature five years later.

The organization offers conference calls, customized education and training services, and language access summits, and advocates for increased language access on a local and national level.

“I became concerned about observations of system problems that patients were facing because of language barriers, as well as attitudes that they encountered in seeking care,” explains WASCLA founding member Joana Ramos, who works as a community organization specialist in social work.

The front of one of WASCLA's new I Speak cards, designed to help people with limited English proficiency access services.
The front of one of WASCLA’s new I Speak cards, designed to help people with limited English proficiency access services.

WASCLA aims to both eliminate language barriers and increase awareness about language disparities in the state of Washington. Our state is experiencing major growth in numbers of people with LEP, and is among the top 10 states for refugee resettlement, making these efforts increasingly important.

Studies have shown LEP patients experience higher incidences of medical errors, unnecessary tests and hospitalizations, longer hospital stays, increased re-admissions and increased emergency room visits if they don’t have access to language services.

So in 2012, WASCLA launched it’s own Interpreter and Translator Directory — a searchable online database of interpreters and translators working in Washington state. Individuals can create profiles listed in the directory that gives them access to variety of industries, if they offer services such as translators, spoken language interpreters, or sign language interpreters.

Last week at Harborview Medical Center, WASCLA launched a set of “Tools for Health” to help consumers access language services in the 31 most commonly spoken languages in Washington state. One of the tools is the “I Speak” card system, which allows patients to indicate what language they speak non-verbally upon arriving at a hospital or other service provider, and to request an interpreter in that language. WASCLA also unveiled newly designed fliers that explain language service rights to consumers.

Without an interpreter hospital and doctor visits can be confusing, and even dangerous for people with Limited English Proficiency. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Todd Frantom / U.S. Navy)
Without an interpreter hospital and doctor visits can be confusing, and even dangerous for people with Limited English Proficiency. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Todd Frantom / U.S. Navy)

But language disparities aren’t just a problem when it comes to heath care. They’re also a source of inequality in the legal system, in reporting employment rights violations, accessing human trafficking resources and many other areas..

This past summer, Metro launched its new foreign language plan to help people with LEP access their services, but made critical mistakes in the actual interpretation of bus schedules and route information. Disparities in language access is clearly a problem that spans far beyond the hospital room, courtroom, or workplace.

Ramos says believes everyday people can help WASCLA get closer to achieving their goals of language-based equality.

“Educate yourself – learn what we’re all about,” she says “Call people out when they say things like ‘Why don’t they just learn English if they’re going to live here?’ Explain to them why it’s important that we make accommodations for [LEP individuals], and it’s how we’re going to combat those misunderstandings.”

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