More than 50 people stood outside of a Duane Reade in Queens yesterday to protest English-only labels and instructions at pharmacies, a practice they said can cause confusion, aggravated medical issues, even death.
The demonstrators held signs that read, "Medicine without translation = dangerous medicine" and "The law requires translations in pharmacies," attracting a crowd that started small but swelled to over 100 onlookers. Locals joined in with chants of "Si Se Puede" (Yes We Can).
The protest was organized by Make The Road By Walking, a nonprofit organization that addresses issues that affect low income New Yorkers and immigrants.
A few minutes into the protest, an unidentified man walked by shouted, "Just learn English like my grandparents did!" and was answered by boos from the demonstrators.
"The truth is that learning English takes time and there are laws that require this. We don’t want people to die while they’re in the process of learning." said Andrew Friedman, co-director of the group.
State law requires all healthcare providers receiving federal funds to offer language translation services to patients. Although these laws have been largely obeyed by hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and Medicaid agencies, they have been disobeyed by pharmacies in New York City, said Nisha Agarwal, staff attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
"In one particular case someone with limited English proficiency read "take once daily" as "once," (the Spanish word for 11) so they took 11 pills and had very serious complications" said Agarwal, "I don’t believe that the individuals who say they should "just learn English" would want to see people being seriously hurt by this."
Protester Aida Torres said she came to the United States at an older age and because of her medical issues, she struggles with retaining the English she has learned. Torres said she doesn’t go to Duane Reade anymore, because at two different locations she could not find anyone who spoke Spanish, and she could not understand the instructions on the medicine her doctor had prescribed.
"We have people using their grandchildren to translate. It’s a huge responsibility for a 10 or 11-year-old child." said Torres, speaking in Spanish through a translator.
Duane Reade released a company statement in response to the protest saying that said they currently provide Spanish labels in certain stores upon request and that they have over 75 Spanish-speaking pharmacists.
Luz Santos, who works at a local chiropractic center, sat at an outdoor table nearby offering free blood pressure screenings to passers-by. Santos said she often helps translate documents for Spanish-speaking patients who come into her chiropractic office.
"You can’t force someone to learn English. My mother doesn’t speak English, she has a learning disability, and learning the language has been especially difficult for her." Santos said. "It hurt me growing up because people would say, ‘You’re here now, learn the language.’ But we’re citizens regardless, and if you’re a citizen, you shouldn’t be forced to do something you don’t want to do."
Make The Road By Walking has held numerous rallies for health care issues. In 2002 they rallied to change the illegal lack of translation services in area hospitals. They have also fought for asthma prevention and awareness in the local community.
"Until a community takes action to demand accountability, the pharmacies will continue to not provide these services." said Friedman. "This is the first step in what is likely to be a long legal battle to get pharmacies to do what they are required to do."