Language Access

Language access allows for people with limited English proficiency to use and benefit from a wide range of services. Any organization that receives federal funding is required to provide language access to its services.

History of Language Access in Health Care

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that recipients of federal funds may not run their programs in such a way as to create discrimination on the basis of race, color, or country of national origin. The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces this act. The OCR has held for many years that language is an aspect of country of national origin.

President Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 in 2000 required all federal agencies to provide guidance to funding recipients on how to comply with Title VI and to produce a plan on how to provide language access in their own services. The OCR then issued guidance requiring the use of qualified health care interpreters and emphasizing the requirement to provide linguistic access to programs supported by federal funds. In 2010, the OCR issued a more comprehensive Guidance and Standards on Language Access Services for Medicare Providers.

The OCR refers to language access as a means of promoting effective communication for Limited English Proficient (LEP), blind, and deaf/hard-of-hearing individuals to receive meaningful access to federally funded recipient programs. Meaningful access means language assistance that results in accurate, timely, and effective communication at no cost to the LEP/SI (Sensory Impaired) individual. LEP further refers to individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English. The development of the National Standards on Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) set the standard for a set of services appropriate to health care providers

Today, the medical and health care industry, regulatory and accrediting agencies, and health advocacy organizations recognize the importance of language access in health care. Organizations like the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) and the American Translators Association (ATA) have been working to ensure that health care providers have access to trained and qualified interpreters and translators to comply with federal and regulatory mandates and better serve their LEP clients and patients.

The Basics of Language Access Services

The Language Access Services Industry has flourished over the last two decades with both commercial and non-profit community-based organizations that provide a range of services including in-person (face-to-face) interpreting, remote (telephone & video) interpreting, document translation, and language proficiency testing. Health care providers and refugee assistance organizations are urged to thoroughly vet any language service provider to ensure that they follow industry standards in regards to interpreter/translator recruitment, competency testing, and overall quality assurance.

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Contributed by The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC)