You are here
Frequently Asked Questions on Legal Requirements to Provide Language Access Services
What is language access?
“Language access” means providing Limited English Proficient (LEP) people with reasonable access to the same services as English-speaking individuals. The two main legal bases for language access are Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, and 2000’s Executive Order 13166, which affirms Title VI’s language access requirement and outlines additional requirements. In some cases, individual states and municipalities have enacted their own language access regulations. Some regulations largely reinforce Title VI and EO13166, while others include specifics regarding the language access planning/implementation.
The Federal Coordination and Compliance Section of the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division maintains a website, www.lep.gov, that provides information, tools, and technical assistance regarding limited English proficiency and language services for federal agencies, recipients of federal funds, users of federal programs and federally assisted programs, and other stakeholders. The section also receives and reviews complaints of discrimination based on language access.
Who must provide language access?
Anyone receiving federal support, even indirectly, is required to provide language access. Moreover, Title VI applies to a recipient's entire program or activity. This means all parts of a recipient's operations are covered, regardless of whether the recipient is only partially funded through federal funds. Language access requirements are therefore relevant to a wide variety of programs, organizations and agencies.
In more concrete terms, what must I do to comply?
Recipients of federal funding must take “reasonable steps” to ensure that LEP individuals have “meaningful access” to their activities and programs and activities. An agency provides meaningful access to its programs when the language assistance provided is accurate, timely and effective and is at no cost to the LEP individual. Each agency’s approach to overcoming language barriers will differ based on the population they serve, the type of service they provide and the resources they have access to.
DOJ has developed a self assessment and planning tool to help agencies determine how to provide meaningful access to LEPs. This approach takes into account an agency’s mission, the population served from both a linguistic and cultural context, the importance of the service provided by the program and available resources when establishing language access policies and plans.
Do I need to develop or submit formal language access plan?
Though you are not required to submit a language access plan, DOJ suggests you develop a language access plan. MPI’s Language Portal contains numerous state and city-level language access plans.
Do I need to provide access to oral information/services?
Yes; if you provide information/services in English, you need to be sure that LEP individuals also have meaningful access to oral information/ services. This is commonly done by using interpretation or by hiring bi/multilingual employees.
Do I need to provide access to written materials?
You don’t need to translate all written materials, but you do need to translate “vital documents,” or documents that are necessary for meaningful access. DOJ clarifies that “a document will be considered vital if it contains information that is critical for obtaining federal services and/or benefits, or is required by law.” This can include forms and policies, but it can also include informational/outreach materials if limited access to those materials can lead to unequal access. If you have a longer document that contains both vital and nonvital information, you may only translate the vital information.
In what languages should I provide services/information?
That will depend on the languages spoken by LEP individuals in your service area. For instance, DOJ does note that “vital documents [should be] translated into the non-English language of each regularly encountered LEP group eligible to be served or likely to be affected by the program or activity.” To figure this out, you should conduct a needs assessment and refer to government demographic data (eg. the Census or the American Community Survey) for languages spoken in your service area.