Agencies need to do more to break down language barriers, DOJ says

The Justice Department wants agencies to take even further steps to address language barriers in federal services.

Agencies should make more of their public-facing services and resources available in more languages other than English, to provide better accessibility to those who have limited English proficiency, the department said in a Nov. 21 memo.

“The Justice Department is committed to working with our federal partners to address linguistic barriers in governmental services that deny individuals a...

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The Justice Department wants agencies to take even further steps to address language barriers in federal services.

Agencies should make more of their public-facing services and resources available in more languages other than English, to provide better accessibility to those who have limited English proficiency, the department said in a Nov. 21 memo.

“The Justice Department is committed to working with our federal partners to address linguistic barriers in governmental services that deny individuals a full opportunity to participate in economic, social and civic life,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a Nov. 21 press statement.

The DOJ memo stemmed from an executive order from 2000, Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency. The order tasked agencies with examining barriers in their services to those with limited English proficiency, and then updating their practices to work toward breaking down those barriers.

Although agencies have made significant progress since then, there is still a “clear need” to continue to improve access to multilingual information, the department said.

DOJ added that it will work with agencies to see if there’s more they can do to improve access, how effectively they’re currently reaching individuals with limited English, and if they would be able to improve digital communications to better access those individuals.

Though not a requirement, DOJ called on agencies to share an update within the next 180 days, about six months.

Some agencies have tried to make progress already. In one example, the IRS added access to documents in multiple languages. Last March, the agency created a Spanish language version of some tax forms, and made instructions available in English, as well as 20 other languages.

Reducing customer burden, addressing inequities and streamlining processes are also goals under the second priority of the President’s Management Agenda — delivering excellent, equitable and secure federal services and customer experience.

In an example related to the PMA, employees working on USA.gov said they are making continuous improvements to the Spanish language version of the website, USAGov en Español, which is not just a direct translation from English.

“The team has designed its Spanish-language website to best meet the needs of its Spanish-speaking audience. Taking the time to understand and better serve its diverse audiences also contributes to the federal priorities of accessibility and inclusion,” an Oct. 5 Performance.gov blog post said.

DOJ has also worked on some internal efforts recently to break down language barriers, by making excerpts of its fiscal 2022-2026 strategic plan available in five different languages. Additionally, the department expanded the number of members on its internal language access team, and created a new working group on the topic.

“Equal access to justice requires innovative and community-centered approaches, including through improving the department’s use of technology, expanding language and disability access, and pursuing culturally competent approaches,” DOJ’s strategic plan said.

DOJ said it plans to provide information in “a variety of languages and formats,” and it will measure progress in part by looking at how many people access their documents in languages other than English.

There are approximately 25.6 million individuals in the U.S. with limited English proficiency. The Census Bureau reported in 2020 that about 8.3% of Americans speak English less than “very well,” — down slightly from 9% in the last decade.

In another effort to improve accessibility, the Justice Department launched an updated version of ADA.gov, the website intended to improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The version of ADA.gov that you will see starting today works well with mobile devices, includes easy-to-use navigation tools and is written in plain language,” the department said in a Nov. 23 press statement.

The update also comes after the Senate called on DOJ to improve accessibility across all of its websites. Despite a requirement for DOJ to report on federal website accessibility every two years, the agency has not released a report in a decade, said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, during a July hearing. Several senators have voiced concerns about the lack of reports from the agency.

Part of the ADA.gov update included adding overviews of common topics, such as service animals, effective communication and telehealth. DOJ aimed to write the overviews in plain language intended for non-legal experts.

The department said it expects the overviews to answer about 80% of questions from the public about the ADA.

 

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