Non-English speakers struggling to access state services; Northam’s Chief Diversity Officer responds to audit

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RICHMOND, Va.(WRIC)- Nearly half a million non-English speaking Virginians are struggling to access essential state services, according to a newly-released audit. 

The report–commissioned by the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion–found this group faces significant language barriers while seeking critical health resources, unemployment benefits, rent relief and information about their child’s education. 

As Virginia grows more diverse, the audit found “limited evidence” that the state government has implemented solutions outlined in a study published nearly two decades ago. 

It noted that complaints during the coronavirus pandemic and lawsuits involving language accessibility are once again highlighting the urgency of the problem. 

“I think it is unfair to say that Virginia has failed,” said Dr. Janice Underwood, who serves as Gov. Ralph Northam’s Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer. “We’ve made some mistakes along the way but these are mistakes that were built into the system. So now that we know better, we’re doing better. We listened to Virginians.”

Asked why the problem is taking so long to solve, Underwood said, “Because the numbers are so small in comparison to those who do speak English, I think that it’s easy to not make it a priority. The COVID-19 crisis made it a priority because lives and livelihoods were on the line.”

Underwood said the state needs to improve its resources so that agencies are prepared for the next crisis.

Despite recent efforts to improve language access, the audit concluded that “translation services, translator documents and language accessibility of state websites lack quality and are inconsistent.” 

Workgroups charged with reviewing current resources reported being dissatisfied with state agencies’ efforts, noting some websites are continuing to use Google Translate despite “noted issues with accuracy and consistency.” 

In a survey, state agency leaders acknowledged that they are more reactive than proactive when it comes to language accessibility efforts and that they would benefit from additional direction from the governor’s office.

The survey found just 27% of agencies feel they have the ability to meet the needs of non-English speakers “most of the time.” Most agencies–or 39%–reported being able to satisfy those needs “sometimes” whereas 14% said they are satisfied “a little of the time.”

Just one agency reported having a complete language access plan while 31 said they had none. 

“The issues are very deep but they are part of how systems were built in the first place,” said Underwood. “To be honest with you, I think folks want to just get it fixed right now but we’re dealing with large systems…inequity has had a 402 year head start.”

The report includes various recommendations with a fiscal impact of $41.7 million over two years. That money would be used to hire 38 specialists across 19 key state agencies, improve translation services, increase training and create a central oversight mechanism to monitor progress. The Department of Medical Assistance Services, the Virginia Employment Commission and the Department of Education are identified as top priorities.

The audit also calls for the repeal of a state law that says agencies and local governments cannot be required to offer services in languages other than English, according to Underwood. 

“Here is an example of the Virginia Code creating a barrier. We have to change that,” Underwood said.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s transition team declined to comment Wednesday on whether he would support these proposals. 

 “There is a call for this work to be done and done in non-partisan ways,” Underwood said. “It’s my hope and great desire that Governor-elect Youngkin and every governor after him, whoever she may be, will be able to continue this work in transformative ways and not check-the-box ways.”

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