One in four New York City residents does not speak English very well. Most want to learn English classes in the city have long waiting lists. But in the meantime, these taxpaying New Yorkers have a hard time getting the services to which theyre entitled. Indeed, language barriers can make some of the most important tasks impossible. Parents cant read their kids report cards. Hospital patients cant tell the doctor where it hurts.
After years of tireless work by advocacy groups, Mayor Bloomberg finally eased the burden this summer by signing Executive Order 120, which directs all city agencies to provide language assistance in the six most common languages in New York City.
The executive order was the result of work by Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, among other groups. They began by conducting research that revealed the lack of translation services in New York City agencies and in the public school system. A survey of parents whose primary language was not English found that nearly half the respondents had never or rarely received written information from their school, their school district, or the Department of Education translated into their native language. In 2001, 77 percent of limited-English proficient individuals who visited the agency that administers public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps did not receive any translation services from staff.
This research, along with judicial and legislative advocacy (and even good ‘ole fashioned community organizing), led to incremental improvements in translation services, first in the Human Resources Administration/ Department of Social Services and then in the Department of Education.
By demonstrating their willingness to exert pressure for adoption of language access policies on an agency-by-agency basis, Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition convinced the Mayors office to establish Executive Order 120, creating a uniform policy for all city agencies to provide language access services. Immigrant rights organizations have called Executive Order 120 the most comprehensive in the country, a national example, and one that will serve as a model for other localities pursuing similarly proactive policies.