Is now the time for Washington to have a Statewide Office for Language Access?

In an increasingly interconnected and diverse world, language barriers can present significant obstacles, hindering access to vital services and information for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) and for those who are Deaf, Deafblind, or Hard-of-Hearing (D/HH/DB). Recognizing this challenge, states may opt to establish a centralized office of language access to streamline and coordinate language access services across government agencies to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and equity in service delivery.

State and local governments receiving federal financial assistance are required to take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to their programs and services by persons with limited English proficiency and, regardless of funding sources, state and local governments are required to ensure effective communication for persons who are Deaf, hard of hearing, or Deafblind. Planning to provide language access services – including interpretation and translation – is critical to providing meaningful access and effective communication to programs and services for all Washingtonians, regardless of the language they communicate in. Creating a language access plan to direct the agency’s language services is the first step in that process.  

In addition to language access plans, having a language access program is critical to implementing robust language services at the agency level. Increasingly, over the past decade, state and local governments have created or increased their language access programs. As state agency staff develop language access programs, they do not have a place to turn for guidance and technical assistance because statewide coordination doesn’t yet exist for state agencies within Washington. The result is that the availability of language assistance services varies across agencies, which means that individuals seeking services need to navigate different processes with each state agency they contact. This variation can cause confusion and create barriers which delay or may prevent access to services for Washington’s LEP and D/HH/DB community members. 

A centralized Office for Language Access would go a long way in ensuring consistent, effective, and equitable access to state agency programs and services. It would provide critical oversight and accountability, along with technical assistance and coordination across state agencies. A Statewide Office for Language Access in Washington State would help agencies adapt to evolving language needs and demographic changes within the state, improve outreach and engagement with diverse communities, ensure compliance with federal non-discrimination requirements, and achieve economies of scale by reducing costs associated with translation and interpretation services. 

The rationale behind establishing a centralized Office for Language Access is multifaceted. Most notably, it can serve as a hub for resources, training, and best practices in language access. A centralized office also facilitates standardization and consistency in language access practices where agencies operate within a unified framework and adhere to common protocols, guidelines, and quality standards. This consistency enhances the credibility and reliability of language services and promotes coherence in communication strategies across government agencies and programs. As a result, community members can expect a consistent level of service regardless of the agency they interact with, fostering trust and confidence in the government’s commitment to linguistic diversity.

Importantly, a centralized Office for Language Access serves as a strategic focal point for stakeholder engagement and community outreach. By serving as a liaison between government agencies, linguistic minority groups, and advocacy groups, the office can gather feedback, assess needs, and advocate for policies that promote language equity. This proactive engagement ensures that language access initiatives are responsive to the evolving needs of diverse communities and reflect their voices and priorities. In essence, the establishment of a centralized Office for Language Access represents a proactive and holistic approach to addressing language barriers in government services. 

Given the diversity of languages spoken by Washingtonians and the benefits outlined above, we have to ask, “is now the time for Washington to invest in language services by creating a statewide Office for Language Access?”

Kristi Cruz & Joana Ramos on behalf of the WASCLA Board of Directors