Ranking seventh out of the top ten metropolitan areas in the nation with the largest foreign born population, the Washington metropolitan area joined New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as a “gateway” for immigrants in the year 2000 with a foreign born population of 16.9 percent (12.9 percent for Washington, DC alone). In the same year, 7 percent of the District’s population acknowledged a language barrier self-identifying as individuals who spoke English “less than very well.” Lack of ability to communicate and subsequent challenges faced when interfacing with local government fueled the advocacy for and ultimate enactment of the DC Language Access Act of 2004.
Passed on April 21, 2004, the DC Language Access Act (LAA) became the third law of its kind in the nation following the Equal Access Ordinances passed in San Francisco and Oakland, CA. The purpose of the LAA is to provide equal access to services for constituents who are limited or non-English proficient (LEP/NEP). It is a comprehensive law that spans the gamut of government services, from public safety and education to housing and health. There are currently thirty-five (35) District agencies identified by name as “covered entities with major public contact” that are required to provide oral and written language services, as well as implement a biennial language access plan and assign a Language Access Coordinator. Oversight of the Act’s implementation rests with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) who serves as the protector and enforcer of this civil right.
On October 24, 2007, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty launched the “Know Your Rights” campaign, a grassroots campaign led by the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) and its partners – the Mayor’s constituency Offices on Latino Affairs, Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, and African Affairs and the DC Language Access Coalition – to inform District residents and community organizations of their legislative rights under the DC Language Access Act. Media platforms utilized reached an estimated 10,000 residents and over 1500 LEP/NEP residents to date have pledged to continue to learn more about their rights. As a direct result, OHR experienced an 87% increase in Language Access complaints filed since the law’s inception. OHR has proactively trained over 1700 employees in 20 agencies on their requirements under the law resulting in a 60% increase in the usage of language resources, specifically the telephonic interpretation line, to communicate with LEP/NEP constituents.
As part of recognizing the 5th Anniversary of the Act, OHR will host a Language Access Policy Forum on Wednesday, July 15, 2009 from 9 am - 4 pm. The event will recognize the accomplishments of the Language Access Program and provide insights for the growth of the Program. The Forum will be held at the True Reformer Building, located at 1200 U Street, NW, Washington, DC. The event is free, open to the public and both breakfast and lunch will be provided.