Texas Cities Work To Fulfill Little-Known Civil Rights Act Provision Requiring Language Access

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination, but also requires communities to provide information in the languages their citizens speak.

By Joy DiazMay 10, 2017 1:44 pm| ,

It’s been more than 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. But to this day, there are parts of the act that haven’t been fulfilled. Specifically, Title VI. Here is what the statute says:

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

We know the Civil Rights Act deals with discrimination. But it also deals with access. There’s a term for the many people in the United States who don’t speak English very well. They have “Limited English Proficiency.” And these people are referred to as LEPs.

Until very recently, the only way for some LEPs in Texas to get information about city services or community events was through the media. Radio stations DKNet 730 AM in the Dallas area serves the Korean community But under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it’s a municipality’s responsibility to provide important information and services in the languages spoken by the people in that community.

A U.S. Department of Justice tutorial explains the requirements for programs and government agencies that receive federal funds:

“The way agencies plan to handle people with Limited English Proficiency depends on four factors.

One: the number or proportion of people with limited English proficiency served in the service population.”

When there are a lot of LEPs in an area, language accommodations should be made.

In Texas, Houston is arguably the city that has made the most strides in this regard.

Terence O’Neill  is director of the Office for New Americans for the City of Houston. His office is the product of a 2013 executive order by former Houston Mayor Anise Parker. Her idea was based on Title VI. She asked that all city departments establish policies for providing information about city services, programs and activities to residents and visitors with limited English proficiency.

The first thing Houston did was translate its website into Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Then O’Neill’s office realized there are also large numbers of hearing-impaired Houstonians. With them in mind, he created YouTube videos.

“For example, we created a video brochure in American Sign Language that’s just about three minutes long and it tells people who are hearing impaired how to prepare for an emergency,” he says.

The Department of Justice tutorial on Title VI says the second factor relating to providing information to LEPs has to do with how often the access is needed.

“The frequency with which the LEP individuals come in contact with the program… ”

The City of Austin is fairly new to this game. It just hired Vivian Newdick as its first Language Access Coordinator. Her position is temporary, and her first task was to look at how often each city department interacted with LEP individuals.

“One of the departments that recognized a gap and is addressing it very quickly is Austin Public Health,” Newdick says. “They have requested translation of dozens of documents into six different languages from me – everything from flyers that advertise cheap produce available – you know at the neighborhood level – to some very complex forms for immunizations.”

The next factor to keep in mind when it comes to language access is the significance of information to be provided.

“Three: The importance of the service provided by the program.”

Who can deny the importance of the services provided by police or EMS? O’Neill says Houston dealt with this issue by bringing on a telephone line that provides interpretation services.

“We are able to offer interpretation services in over 200 different languages,” O’Neill says.

That sounds pricey, and it is.

Some municipalities and small agencies simply could not handle such an expense. And that’s something the Department of Justice has thought about too. It’s reflected in the final factor discussed in the tutorial.

“Four: The resources available to the participant.”

O’Neill says when Houston made all these changes, the city looked for creative ways to use existing funding.

He says LEPs “… are entitled to the same rights of English speakers even though they are unable to speak English.”

One thing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is very clear about is that programs or government entities that receive federal funds and do not provide language access accommodations run the risk of losing their federal funding.