May 07, 2020

Cortez Masto Joins Call for Trump Administration to Ensure People with Limited English Proficiency and People with Disabilities Access the Necessary Information to Receive COVID-19 Benefits

Producing inequitable and ineffective resources and documents for federally funded COVID-19 relief benefits leads to increased inequality in access due to language and disability discrimination

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and 14 other colleagues in sending a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging the Administration to ensure persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and Persons with Disabilities can access the necessary information to receive the COVID-19 benefits that Congress has passed with fully accessible, and multilingual information and benefits available for them.

“Recent news stories highlight the life-threatening consequences to persons of color and persons with disabilities because of lacking access to culturally competent, language specific and/ or disability-sensitive materials to protect themselves from the dangers of COVID-19. We believe the Taskforce has a critical responsibility to fix this,” the senators wrote to Vice President Pence. “Understanding the barriers to information created by language and access impediments is critical to the success of the Taskforce and our nation’s ability to most effectively fight COVID-19.”

More than 60 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English, of which more than 40% have limited English proficiency. Additionally, approximately 38 million individuals in the U.S. are deaf or hard of hearing, 7.5 million have vision loss, and 15 million live with an intellectual disability and require multiple formats of the same information.

The senators urged the White House Coronavirus Taskforce to encourage every federal agency to create culturally sensitive informational materials that are accessible in various formats and multiple languages, including for those with low or no literacy.

“Making federal programs accessible for persons with LEP and for persons with disabilities is a core civil rights requirement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the senators continued. “During a public health emergency current law requires the ‘distribution of supplies, the processing of applications, and other relief and assistance activities [to] be accomplished in an equitable and impartial manner, without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status’  by the federal government.”

“To ensure accuracy, information must be short, culturally appropriate, flexible to serve different platforms (oral, captions, visual, picture infographics, transcriptions with video descriptions, and plain language for those with low literacy), and most importantly created with qualified deaf and hearing interpreters, stakeholders from disability led organizations, and skilled media analysts that can create inclusive content,” the senators concluded before asking a series of questions to understand what actions the Taskforce is taking to ensure fully accessible, and multilingual resources about available COVID-19 benefits and relief.

Joining Senators Cortez Masto and Menendez in sending this letter were Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Full text of the letter is here and below.

Dear Vice President Pence,

We write to inquire what the taskforce is doing to ensure persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) and persons with disabilities can access accurate information and updates on COVID-19 including information on benefits and programs included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Family First Response Act.  In order to ensure their health and livelihoods are not further compromised due to language barriers, we strongly urge the White House Coronavirus Taskforce to encourage every federal agency to create culturally sensitive informational materials that are accessible in various formats and multiple languages, including for those with low or no literacy.

Recent news stories highlight the life-threatening consequences to people of color and people with disabilities of lacking access to culturally competent, language specific and/ or disability-sensitive materials to protect themselves from the dangers of COVID-19. We believe the Taskforce has a critical responsibility to fix this. The role of the Taskforce is to “monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus, while ensuring that the American people have the most accurate and up-to-date health and travel information”. Understanding the barriers to information created by language and access impediments is critical to the success of the Taskforce and our nation’s ability to most effectively fight COVID-19. 

More than 60 million people in the United States speak a language other than English of which more than 40% have limited English proficiency. Additionally, approximately 38 million individuals living in the United States are deaf or hard of hearing, 7.5 million have vision loss, and 15 million live with an intellectual disability and require multiple formats of the same information. The need for expanded language assistance increases as Congress continues to pass legislation in response to COVID-19. The Taskforce must address language access issues to ensure these marginalized communities access the benefits to which they are entitled. Our national response cannot be successful if whole sections of our society are unable to access timely and accurate information about the virus, health information, and services that may benefit them during the pandemic.

Making federal programs accessible for persons with LEP and for persons with disabilities is a core civil rights requirement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During a public health emergency, current law requires the “distribution of supplies, the processing of applications, and other relief and assistance activities [to] be accomplished in an equitable and impartial manner, without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status” by the federal government. While many states and territories have disseminated multilingual and sign language interpreted information on COVID-19, there is a lack of federal guidance with the same accessibility. Many of the increased benefits available to Americans during the COVID-19 crisis require individuals to read and fill out forms, and engage in online and verbal phone communications. Interpretation and translation is not enough; the incorporation of multilingual staff, accessibility media analysts, language inclusion evaluations, and additional funding for language services is necessary. To meet these needs, the Taskforce must also work with and include representatives from LEP communities, interpreting agencies, and organizations led by persons with disabilities in the development of any policies and procedures affecting these communities. It is also important to remember, communication access for persons with disabilities does not have a singular solution. To ensure accuracy, information must be short, culturally appropriate, flexible to serve different platforms (oral, captions, visual, picture infographics, transcriptions with video descriptions, and plain language for those with low literacy), and most importantly created with qualified deaf and hearing interpreters, stakeholders from disability led organizations, and skilled media analysts that can create inclusive content.

In order to understand what actions the Taskforce is taking, or planning to take to ensure fully accessible, and multilingual resources about available COVID-19 benefits and relief, please respond to the following questions below no later than May 1, 2020:

  1. What steps has the Taskforce taken to ensure that persons with LEP and persons with disabilities receive the benefits and assistances to which they are entitled under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Family First Response Act?
  2. Have you consulted or do you plan to consult with advocates from LEP communities, interpreting agencies and organizations led by persons with disabilities on how to best create and disseminate resources on COVID-19 benefits?
  3. Given the Taskforce’s limited language resources during press briefings and the lack of centralized online educational materials, how will you ensure that the agencies and departments have sufficient resources to meet language access solutions related to COVID-19 aid?
  4. Has the Taskforce created agency guidance to collect demographic information of people receiving benefits in order to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the language solutions implemented, and ensure aid is reaching all communities? If so, what types of demographic information and which agencies have been involved in the data collection? 

We look forward to your response detailing how the Taskforce plans to make this crucial information available to these communities and your plan on immediate action required to fulfill this request.