June 27, 2023

Why Language Access Matters…For Everybody


4 min. read


Mujeres in Action is the first organization in the Spokane region dedicated to serving survivors of domestic and sexual violence from the Latino/a/x communities. Over the past year, MiA has been working with the courts and county sheriff’s department concerning language access for limited English proficiency (LEP) speakers and how it impacts a client’s access to justice. MiA has united a very diverse coalition of organizations that serve communities for whom language access is a priority by creating a language access campaign. Read more about MiA’s work in their RSJ Spotlight here: ywcaspokane.org/mujeres-in-action/.

Since YWCA Spokane also works with domestic violence (DV) survivors, we have sent a letter of support to join MiA in asking the county to develop and implement a county-wide language access plan. Language is an essential component of any effort to improve communication, equity, and access to critical government services.

What is the ask?

For Spokane County to develop and implement a more comprehensive and equitable language access plan that goes beyond interpretation and has the budget to include:

  • Specific processes for all departments especially those that are public facing
  • Easy access to certified translators
  • Visible signage & “I speak…” cards
  • Detailed instructions on how to work with LEP residents at every level of service
  • Ongoing training for all staff
  • Cultural awareness training
  • Diversity in hiring practices
  • Language pay
  • Hire or designate a language access coordinator
Why is this needed?

DV cases involve complex and emotionally charged information. Accurate communication is essential for survivors to present their case, seek protection, and access necessary services. Far too often, DV survivors are left to navigate the legal system or interpret specific laws and procedures with little support, whether English is their primary language or not. Did you know the average American reads at the 7th to 8th grade level? Additionally, 1 out of 5 American adults (or 21%) possess low literacy skills, comprising about 43 million people. Suffice to say it’s difficult to decipher legal documents such as court orders, protection orders, and other legal forms often written in legalese by lawyers, policymakers, or other legal professionals (read: required degrees in higher education). You should not need a degree to understand your legal rights.

With a population of almost 230,000, 7.7% of Spokane’s residents speak a language other than English at home. That represents over 42,000 people. Language barriers such as, not having forms and documents translated into multiple languages, create significant obstacles for survivors making it challenging for them to navigate the court system independently. Without proper translation, survivors may not fully understand their rights and obligations.

Providing services such as interpretation and translation ensure that survivors can effectively communicate their experiences, concerns, and needs to the court and legal professionals. Translated court documents and interpretation services during court hearings and meetings help survivors comprehend the information provided, enabling them to make informed decisions. It also allows for understanding of the court process and available options for seeking protection and justice.

“As a legal advocate of color, it hits different when you see another person of color struggling and having to go through all these barriers.” – Yesenia Mendez, YWCA Spokane Legal Advocate

Cultural awareness/competency

DV cases can involve sensitive and complex issues that require accurate communication of cultural and linguistic nuances. If interpreters lack cultural competency or understanding of specific idioms, colloquialisms, or cultural contexts, important information may be misinterpreted or lost, hindering survivors’ ability to express themselves fully.

DV survivors may already experience fear and distrust due to their abusive experiences. This fear can be intensified if they are uncertain about the confidentiality and impartiality of interpreters, leading to hesitancy in disclosing sensitive information or seeking language assistance.

Language access services contribute to the safety and well-being of DV survivors. By enabling effective communication, survivors can better articulate the details of their abusive experiences, provide necessary evidence, and request appropriate protective measures. This can lead to improved safety planning, increased likelihood of receiving court-ordered protection, and better outcomes for survivors.

Availability/Accessibility

One of the most significant barriers is the limited availability of professional interpreters who are trained in legal terminology and court procedures. DV survivors may require interpretation services to communicate effectively in court, but finding qualified interpreters who can accurately convey their messages can be challenging.

Even when interpreters are available, survivors may experience delays in accessing interpretation services or receive inadequate support due to scheduling conflicts or miscommunication. This can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and a compromised ability to present their case effectively.

Addressing these barriers requires concerted efforts from the court system, legal service providers, and policymakers. It is crucial to allocate adequate resources for interpretation services, ensure the availability of qualified interpreters, to provide culturally competent support, translate essential legal documents, and prioritize the language needs of DV survivors within the court systems.

Providing language access services demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and fairness in the court system. When survivors see their language needs are being prioritized and they are being heard and understood, it can help build trust and confidence in the legal process. By providing language access services, survivors are empowered to actively participate in court proceedings, ask questions, and fully understand the information provided to them. Survivors are able to exercise their rights and have their voices heard. This can encourage other survivors to come forward, report abuse, and seek legal remedies, contributing to the overall effectiveness of addressing DV cases.


Additional resources:

Want to testify for an upcoming commissioner meeting? Please contact Jesús Torres at jtorres@miaspokane.org. Review testimony tips and tricks here: Language access testimony tips.

May 30 | Spokane County Commissioner Meeting – Spanish Testimony

June 6 | Spokane County Commissioner Meeting – Arabic Testimony

Title XI | Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

 

 

By: Lara Estaris

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