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Language Access Bill Backers Seek Equal Access To Services

The Massachusetts state flag flies in front of the State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts state flag flies in front of the State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

State agencies would be required to ensure equal access to services, programs and activities for people with limited English proficiency and an oversight board would provide guidance and technical assistance to those entities under new legislation filed this session.

Lawmakers and advocates supporting the bill (H 3199 / S 2040) say requiring state agencies to provide access to non-English speaking residents is a crucial step to helping a large population access taxpayer-funded services. And the issue of language access, those supporters say, existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the daily news.

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"The pandemic dramatically exposed the incapacity of state agencies to provide consistent services in other languages," says Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition Executive Director Eva Milona. "Advocates and legislative staff were overwhelmed with requests to help constituents navigate English on the web portals, applications, emails, and other requests."

The legislation would mandate, standardize, and enforce language requirements for state-funded programs by requiring agencies to translate websites and documents and provide oral interpretation services into non-English languages spoken in the state, including American Sign Language.

A Language Access Advisory Board would provide oversight, technical assistance and relief mechanisms to those who haven't received adequate language access as laid out in the legislation. The board would meet at least four times a year and include appointees from the governor, Office of Access and Opportunity in the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Senate president, House speaker and attorney general's Civil Rights Division, among others.

Rep. Adrian Madaro, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, says the proposal would ensure that all Massachusetts residents can equitably access their government and associated services.

"While I recognize that Massachusetts has made efforts to address language equity in the Commonwealth, it's really important to note that we've seen an inconsistency in interpretation and language access for ... services for residents with limited English proficiency, making complex processes to access critical safety net programs even more unnavigable for these individuals and families," the East Boston Democrat said during a virtual briefing Wednesday.

The bill, currently sitting in the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee, has drawn over 25 cosponsors in both the House and Senate.

Northeastern University professor Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna says there are over 1.5 million residents in Massachusetts who speak a language other than English at home. While only about 10% of people in the state live below the official poverty line, she says, about 40% of those individuals are limited English speakers.

"So what this means is 153,000 kitchen tables where people are more comfortable speaking a language other than English," Estrella-Luna says. "And what we see here in Eastie and across the state is that our limited English speakers are also disproportionately poor."

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Language Access Attorney Iris Coloma-Gaines says there is not a viable enforcement mechanism for people who are not provided language access services. Under federal law, she says, a private rite of action for national origin discrimination — which includes discrimination based on language — is only limited to intentional discrimination.

"And this is a really high bar for plaintiffs to meet in court," she says.

If adopted, the legislation would provide a private right of action for limited English proficient individuals in court when they are not provided language access by a public facing agency. Coloma-Gaines says the legislation also discourages the use of machine translation for websites or documents like Google Translate "which many state agencies rely on for website translation."

To use machine translation, according to the bill text, agencies would need to have the document or website reviewed by a qualified interpreter.

"Machine translation is rife with errors and not an accurate or reliable tool without human intervention. Massachusetts limited English proficient residents are being left out of state agency services they direly need," she says. "Although less than a handful of state agencies have moved the needle slightly forward on language access, much more work still needs to be done."

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