NHeLP’s Fight for Language Access During the Pandemic

The National Health Law Program (NHeLP) has recently filed a civil rights complaint arguing that numerous agencies at all levels within the United States government have failed to provide adequate language access services to residents with limited English proficiency (LEP) during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The administrative complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and states that local, state, and federal agencies are not providing “meaningful access to COVID services” to residents with LEP.

“This failure violates numerous federal laws, regulations, and guidance and makes access to COVID-19 testing, vaccines, treatment, and contact tracing significantly more difficult for the nation’s nearly 66 million people with LEP,” reads a statement from the National Health Law Program, released April 30. 


The complaint describes a number of examples in which language access services were either nonexistent or poorly developed, such as a vaccination site in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood that lacked Chinese translations of signage and paperwork. Another instance cited in the complaint is the fact that Colorado’s COVID-19-related communications are rarely translated or interpreted into languages other than Spanish, despite the fact that a large population of Native American speakers of languages like Navajo and Mixtec reside within the state. “Everyone in this country has a right to meaningful access to health care in a language they understand, whether they are an Arabic speaker in Michigan or a Korean speaker in Georgia,” said NHeLP’s senior attorney Priscilla Huang.

NHeLP compiled each of these instances from information provided by 35 organizations and individuals across the nation. One particularly troublesome pattern that NHeLP found was that government agencies often use machine translation (MT) systems without having professional human translators or linguists vet these translations — in their complaint, NHeLP suggests that agencies who use MT in developing translations for residents with LEP also have qualified translators review these translations in order to ensure that they are providing constituents with accurate translations of COVID-19-related information.

NHeLP hopes that by improving both the quantity and quality of language access services in the United States, things like vaccination campaigns and contact tracing will become easier and more attainable for residents of the country who do not speak English fluently.

“While we have anecdotally heard about problems over the last year, our investigation reveals a nationwide problem,” said Jane Perkins, the legal director of NHeLP. “We are concerned by reports that the nation’s vaccination rates are leveling off, so we are asking both OCR and FEMA to take action as quickly as possible to address language access barriers.”

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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