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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Ledger
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

The Prescription for Relief: Translation


The not-for-profit group Make the Road by Walking rallied in front of Duane Reade on Myrtle Ave in Ridgewood last Wednesday, charging pharmacies citywide with discriminating against non-English speakers.

“What do we want?” asked Irania Sanchez aloud. The 40-plus Make the Road members on-hand hollered back: “Translation!”

The legal basis of Make the Road’s argument is that any organization receiving federal money is prohibited from discriminating based on race or national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to Nisha Agarwal, an attorney for Make the Road, that means pharmacies, which receive payments through the federal program Medicaid, are required to provide translations services.”

Agarwal, however, argued the opposite occurs in New York City and other large cities across the country. “New York is a huge immigrant city,” she said, “so it is particularly disturbing to see it’s a problem here. But it’s also a problem everywhere.”

She also noted the protest was not aimed at the pharmacy chain Duane Reade, but the particular location made sense since it sits in the middle of one of Queens’ larger Spanish-speaking communities.

During the rally, which was attended by a crowd of more than 40, Make The Road members shared stories about not taking their medications because they could not read or speak English, or using their children to read labels on medicine bottles for them.

This, claimed Theo Oshiro, the organization’s health advocate, puts lives at risk or undue responsibility on youth. “People could get seriously hurt and seriously sick,” he said with regards to not taking medications at all.

Indeed, one of the more disturbing tales came from a bespectacled, middle-aged attendee named “Aida,” who said no one at her Brooklyn Duane Reade can speak or write Spanish.

Once, she brought the pharmacist at the location a potent prescription for muscle relaxants, “but I couldn’t find anyone to who could translate for me,” she told the crowd through an interpreter.

Since “Aida” felt wary about taking her medication without knowing the dosage or frequency, she took simple Tylenol instead. Today, she uses a Spanish-speaking pharmacy which does not write anything on the bottles, but employs staff who are able to answer her questions.

Fellow Make the Road member Maria Sanchez, on the other hand, continues to use the non-Spanish-speaking pharmacist in her own neighborhood, but relies on her 10-year-old granddaughter to translates the bottles.

“The pharmacy never asks me if I need translated labels, and I cannot ask myself,” said the 65-year-old immigrant from Ecuador. “This is a lot of responsibility for a 10-year-old girl, but very often I have no choice but to ask for her help.”

Finally, the aforementioned Irania Sanchez claimed she almost died once because of a lack of translation. Instead, she ended up in a hospital emergency room.

She said the label of her medication called for her to take one dose each day. Unfortunately, Irania understood neither how often she was supposed to take her medicine, nor the severe consequences if she did not.

“So we all have our little medicine cabinets where we keep [our little bottles], but sometimes we forget what they’re for,” she said, estimating that if translations are available, “we could avoid a death every day.”

The manager of the Duane Reade where the rally took place refused to comment with regards to his branch’s policy on translated prescriptions, or whether they employ anyone who speaks Spanish.

Meanwhile, Agarwal said come the end of September, Make the Road will be joining the New York Immigration Coalition in filing a complaint with the city regarding the issue.