Residents Still Shut Out Of Essential County Services By Language Barrier

Photo/Long Island Wins archives

Today marks the fourth year gone by since Nassau County’s language access program has failed to take off.

Cheryl Keshner, senior paralegal and community advocate with the Empire Justice Center, said that just to get the county to agree to the initiative took months of work by language access advocates.

“We wanted it to mirror what was done in Suffolk County as well as New York City to make sure the county agencies were complying with their legal obligation to provide language access,” Keshner said. “It was definitely a struggle to get them to agree to it.”

A pair of executive orders were signed by County Executive Edward Mangano in 2013 on July 31 and Aug. 15, with the mandates to be implemented by August 2014.

Provisions of the orders included designating a language access coordinator; translating vital documents into the county’s most frequently used languages including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Korean, Italian, Persian (Farsi), and Simplified Chinese; and providing competent interpreters in any language needed for telephone or in-person encounters.

Keshner is also the coordinator of Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC), which issued a report in 2015 calling out the county for failing to act in “good faith” to make a reality the framework outlined in the executive orders.

She added that LILAC coordinated testing by calling the most commonly publicly engaged agencies of the county on 60 occasions to determine language accessibility. She said in only four instances did callers actually receive the help they needed.

“In a series of calls, we found that people were treated either rudely, they were hung up on, they were not provided with the language assistance, or in some cases, they just couldn’t get through the queue,” she said.

Since the report, Keshner has seen minor improvements, including added language tabs on county websites, but stressed not enough is being done.

Multiple attempts requesting a response were unanswered by Nassau County’s public information office.

Keshner added that county officials told advocates that the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) and the Department of Social Services were piloting the language access program. However, Keshner said these two agencies already had existing contracts with interpreters which predated the order.

Keshner added that advocates reached out to the New York State Attorney General’s office, who then followed up with the NCPD, prompting the agency to conduct its own internal testing and subsequent improvements.

“They did make a number of improvements in response to our concerns and suggestions. They actually did some of their own testing and recognized that they were deficient,” she said.

In an emailed statement Patrick Ryder, the county’s new acting police commissioner, said that all department buildings, patrol vehicles and officers have access to interpreter services through the interpreter firm, Language Line Solutions, and are able to communicate with residents in 240 languages.

“The Nassau County Police Department is dedicated to communicating with all persons [with] limited English proficiency. In our efforts to make sure that we provide the best police services, we have trained all our officers in the use of our telephonic interpreter service to mitigate the barriers to effective communication.”

NCPD officials told advocates at a meeting last week that usage of the language line had increased steadily since April, which had 489 minutes used. In May, there were 544 minutes used, then 580 in June, with a jump to 744 in July.

Overall, Keshner said that the county has a long way to go to properly comply with federal law.

“That’s really what the law requires under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act: they have to have meaningful access to all programs and services,” Keshner said. “There still needs to be a lot of work done.”

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