Published on OSTI on June 7, 2015 by Helen Eby


Language access and civil rights

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance. This includes language access.

The National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care (The National CLAS Standards) say:

Principal Standard

1) Provide effective, equitable, understandable and respectful quality care and services that are responsive to diverse cultural health beliefs and practices, preferred languages, health literacy and other communication needs.

Communication and Language Assistance

5) Offer language assistance to individuals who have limited English proficiency and/or other communication needs, at no cost to them, to facilitate timely access to all health care and services.

6) Inform all individuals of the availability of language assistance services clearly and in their preferred language, verbally and in writing.

7) Ensure the competence of individuals providing language assistance, recognizing that the use of untrained individuals and/or minors as interpreters should be avoided.

8) Provide easy-to-understand print and multimedia materials and signage in the languages commonly used by the populations in the service area.

This link provides guidance material regarding Limited English Proficiency. Its purpose is to clarify to members of the public, and to providers of health and social services who receive Federal financial assistance from HHS, the responsibility of such providers to Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons, pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has prepared this Language Access Assessment and Planning Tool for Federally Conducted and Federally Assisted Programs. In other words, it is a tool for programs that benefit from the use of federal funds. It has a useful checklist for planning.

There is much more information, constantly updated, on

Reporting complaints:

The Oregon Health Authority has a link for reporting Civil Rights complaints. These complaints cover Discrimination and ADA complaints.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a link for reporting complaints about civil rights violations, including language access.

Complaints can be filed anonymously, and in foreign languages. That means that the reporting party has significant options: to be totally anonymous (not state their name at all, which makes it difficult to investigate the claim) or to state their name, but request that their name not be revealed to the organization being investigation. This request is always honored.
Investigations often result in voluntary compliance, not always in a need for enforcement.

Complaints can also be filed on behalf of another party, not just by the affected party, though it is more effective when the affected party can be interviewed.

Role of interpreters:
The role of interpreters in an interaction is simply to interpret neutrally, as it always has been! Possibly, a good venue for this topic would be at a community center, in sessions dedicated to cultural adjustments to the United States, or in other settings where people are made aware of their rights. As translators and interpreters, our role is simply to convey the message we are there to convey accurately and completely, neutrally, in a culturally appropriate manner, without taking sides. We are not investigators. We are interpreters.

Advocacy tenet from the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare:

When the patient’s health, well-being, or dignity is at risk, the interpreter may be justified in acting as an advocate. Advocacy is understood as an action taken on behalf of an individual that goes beyond facilitating communication, with the intention of supporting good health outcomes. Advocacy must only be undertaken after careful and thoughtful analysis of the situation and if other less intrusive actions have not resolved the problem.

You can also report a safety complaint to the Joint Commission through this link.

In Washington State, only certified and registered interpreters can interpret through the union contract. This report details the complaints received. When working with truly qualified interpreters who have all been tested on their interpreting skills, the quality of service is reliably good.