Language Access for Limited English Proficiency (LEP)
One of the most heartbreaking results of COVID-19 pandemic has been hearing about people falling ill, suffering, and too-often dying, without their family and loved ones around them. Imagine how much more terrible this must be if the patient – or family members – cannot easily communicate with caregivers, nor fully understand what they are told. Combine these challenges with statistics showing COVID-19 disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities and the picture is grim.
News stories report that people without language access are suffering from lower quality care than those who have local language fluency. Overworked emergency room staff have enough to do without the extra burden of struggling to communicate – that’s why hospitals have interpreters on-call – but the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen changes in expectations for translation and interpreting services around the world. While language service providers (LSPs) are seeing an overall – and significant – reduction in demand (“COVID-19 LSP 2 Survey Data: Overall Results”), they have also told us that a few, very specific, vertical markets have increased volumes, including healthcare (“COVID-19 and the Demand for Localization”).
Many bodies provide information in various languages to help communicate during the pandemic: for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published “CDC Communication Toolkit For Migrants, Refugees, and Other Limited-English-Proficient Populations” and Translators Without Borders released “TWB’s Global Response to COVID-19”.
But it is not only in healthcare that COVID-19 has, by the severity of the situation, emphasized gaps in understanding for those with limited English proficiency (LEP), or local language fluency in non-English speaking countries. Information about lockdowns and stay-at-home rules; instructions for wearing face coverings on public transport; restricted hours at supermarkets to allow the elderly to shop; guidance for home schooling; access to emergency financial aid programs or mortgage “holidays”; help lines for mental health – render all of these programs unavailable if you do not understand the language in which the content is offered. Missing out on real-time information is likely to make the long-term effect of the pandemic more severe and disproportionate to those parts of the community not fluent in the local language.
Over time, academic analysis of the impact of the virus by indicators such as ethnicity, income, language proficiency, underlying health issues, and many other criteria will no doubt show significant variations in how the 2020 pandemic affected different sectors of the community. This data will also indicate significant opportunities for reducing risk in case of a future outbreak or similar emergency, just as this study provides a correlation of literacy rates and sickness during the 1918 flu epidemic in Chicago. While poverty, existing health issues, housing, and other concerns take time to fix and are major challenges for all, language access may be one of the easiest obstacles to overcome: organizations can immediately begin to make any needed improvements.
Language Laws and Compliance
The United States and other countries and regions have laws and regulations to help ensure provision of information in a language that each person can understand. Many of these programs in the U.S. fall within the scope of LEP regulations that require language access provision. Simply put: In the U.S., any organization that receives federal funding, either directly or indirectly, must take reasonable steps to support LEP communities. This is a fundamental part of human rights law – the U.S. legislation of note being Title VI.
While the peak of a pandemic is not the best place to begin thinking about language access, it should be the trigger to start reviewing your organization’s LEP compliance and how better to serve people who understand another language better than your country’s official or most-used tongue. Do you translate information because your organization must – by law – enable people to understand your programs, services, and offerings? Is the pandemic proving a gap in comprehension for communities with limited proficiency in the language your organization uses? Make a review of your language management processes a mandatory early step in your post-pandemic planning.
Our interactions with organizations that receive government funding – either directly, or indirectly to support programs such as subsidized health insurance – show that they are often not up-to-date with language management techniques, technologies, or processes. There are steps that you can take to make translation management more efficient, and to enable remote interpreting when face-to-face communication isn’t possible (“Managing Translation of LEP Content”, “Interpreting in the COVID-19 Business Climate”, and “How Can Machine Interpreting Help During COVID-19?”). The first step to take is a review of existing processes, gaps, and challenges.
Questions to Ask During Your Language Process Review
Use these questions as a starting point for identifying gaps in your LEP process.
- Is there a difference in health outcomes for LEP patients in comparison to those fluent in English?
- Can you attribute insufficient or delayed information to LEP communities to issues related to social distancing, stay-at-home measures, use of face coverings, COVID-19 testing, or similar information related to your organization or company?
- Have your staff reported problems communicating with any eligible applicant or recipient of programs or services?
- Is there a lower take-up of benefits within communities where census data or your organization’s own research indicates that many inhabitants speak another language at home?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s time to plan a full review of LEP and/or language access processes and to integrate a broader range of real-time communication solutions that don’t leave anyone without the proper information or care.>
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