Guide to Developing a Language Access Plan
A language access plan defines the resources your organization uses to effectively communicate with a diverse community of individuals, including those who are not fluent in English, are hard of hearing or visually impaired, or have other comprehension issues. A language access plan can help provide a wide range of individuals with meaningful access to the services your company or organization provides, broadening your customer and client base as well as sending a message of inclusivity to your community.
A language access plan is a codified organizational policy that sets out, in detail, how your organization provides communication assistance services to individuals who are non-English speaking, have limited English proficiency (LEP), have a hearing or visual issue that impacts their communication, or otherwise benefit from additional resources to help them communicate effectively.
Language assistance services include both oral and written services. These services are designed to facilitate effective communication with staff and to provide LEP individuals with meaningful access to and an equal opportunity to participate fully in the services, activities, or other programs administered by your organization.
Communication services can also include Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI), specialists who provide interpreting, translation, and transliteration services utilizing American Sign Language and other visual and tactual communication forms used by individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind. CDIs are trained and certified deaf individuals who provide interpreting services to deaf consumers who may utilize other sign languages apart from ASL or who may have linguistic impairments that prevent them from effectively communicating using a traditional ASL interpreter. CDIs can be extremely helpful in situations involving mental health issues, sexual abuse, and trauma, situations with ASL learners, children with developing language ability, foreign-born deaf individuals, individuals who communicate via home signs, and those with developmentally minimal language skills.
Any organization that serves a population with limited English proficiency or other communication challenges will benefit from having a language access plan, but this tool is especially helpful in some fields. Schools, healthcare providers, government agencies, and providers of legal services have obligations under federal and state laws to provide accessible services to their clientele. A written plan shows which members of your team are responsible for taking the actions necessary to comply with your legal obligations, which is especially useful if your organization must file compliance paperwork and/or receive government funding.
Assessing your organization’s unique language access needs will involve not only evaluating the populations you hope to serve but also the federal and state laws related to language access that apply to you. These may include (but are not limited to):
- Affordable Care Act, Rule 1557 (ACA)
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
- Executive Order 13166 "Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency”
- Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA)
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Protected Health Information (PHI)
- The Joint Commission
- Every Student Succeeds Act (Formerly No Child Left Behind)
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI)
You should identify and become familiar with the regulations that apply to your organization. Some apply broadly to many different industries (like the ADA, for example, which protects the rights of Americans with disabilities in accessing business, housing, schooling, employment, and more), while others are more specialized (like the HIPAA, which applies to the safeguarding of protected medical information). Other examples include:
Vital Document Translation
Federal regulations require health care organizations to translate vital documents for patients in order to help them understand their health care rights. Examples include notices of free language assistance, informed consent documents, intake forms that have clinical consequences, and discharge instructions.
LEP Program Implementation
Federal agencies and organizations that receive federal financial assistance are required to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them.
Equal Opportunity in Education
In addition to compliance with the applicable laws, however, having a language access plan can help your business reach more customers, expand your market share, increase your goodwill, and enhance your reputation. With ever-increasing globalization of production, shipping, and technology, effective communication is more important than ever. Having a written language access plan can help ensure suppliers, management, and customers communicate efficiently and effectively. This globalization of communication is beneficial for companies across a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, insurance, financial services, and consumer goods. As healthcare technology and pharmacology become worldwide concerns, responding to global emergencies and medical needs, a language access plan can help researchers and scientists communicate seamlessly.
Although language access plans should be customized to the needs and goals of each organization, plans typically include the following components:
Section 1: Needs Assessment
The first step in developing a language access plan is to gather information about the needs of current and prospective patients, consumers, or clients. For populations whose preferred spoken and written language is other than English, including those with limited English proficiency (LEP), identify which languages they prefer. Identify other groups with communication issues, such as those who are hard of hearing and those who are visually impaired. Examine the ways in which individuals with these communication issues interact with your organization and the challenges they face.
Once you have done so, identify ways to resolve those difficulties. These can include adding additional internal resources, contracting with outside professional language service providers, or a combination of the two. It may benefit a larger business or government agency, for example, to have an on-site interpreter available during regular business hours if it has a large LEP clientele that speak one or several common languages. In addition, the business or agency could contract with outside professional interpreters to provide interpretation and translation services for LEP speakers of other languages on specific days or on an as-need basis.
Your needs may change over time as your organization or the population it serves changes. Your language access plan should include ways to reassess your organization’s needs and determine whether your current resources are sufficient and appropriate.
Section 2: Communication Services
Once it has identified your communication challenges, your plan should enumerate the services that you offer to resolve the issues. It should include the interpreting and communication enhancement services your organization currently offers, when they are used or accessed, and the mechanisms in place for providing them. This includes your solutions for on-site interpreting, video remote interpreting, and phone interpreting as well as off-site professional providers. It should specify:
- Your language services provider for each service offered
- How services are available (e.g., on demand, by request, or on certain days/times)
- Which languages are available
- How interpreters are selected, trained, and certified if appropriate
- How your organization ensures interpretation accuracy
- How often these processes will be reviewed
For individuals with LEP, provide a description of the types of services, such as in-person interpretation, video remote interpretation, and translation of documents and a list of available languages for each service. For individuals who are hard of hearing, provide information about hearing-assistive technology like assistive listening devices, hearing loops, or alertive devices that may be helpful as well as services like captioning, text transcription, and voice-to-text. Ever-evolving digital technology like mobile apps and tablets can help students, patients, and other individuals communicate immediately and efficiently in situations where time is of the essence. If your organization offers any additional technological resources or contracts with professional communications providers, identify them in this section of your plan.
A written language access plan helps both your employees and the intended beneficiaries understand what communication resources are available and how to access them. It should also identify the individuals in your organization whose responsibility it is to help make those connections.
Section 3: Notices
Having a wide variety of resources available is only beneficial if users know about them and how to access them. Your language access plan should identify how you will let your patients, clients, customers, and other individuals who may wish to utilize these communication resources know about their availability. You may wish to post multilingual notices or play audible announcements in your workplace, especially in highly trafficked areas like entrances, break rooms, lobbies, waiting rooms, bathrooms, and hallways. Employees who interact with the public might add the languages they speak to their identification badge or their nametag.
Also, consider whether to add information about the communication assistance services that you have available to your website, marketing materials, print advertisements, mail and email campaigns, and other public-facing content. Having multi-lingual website options, videos, downloadable content, educational materials, and other self-serve digital options can be cost-effective ways to help you connect with a wider demographic of potential clients, customers, patients, or associates.
In its own language access plan, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) outlines several steps that the agency implements to notify those who need language services of its available interpretation resources and commitment to serving LEP populations. These steps include
- Designating an office or individual responsible for notifying individuals with limited English proficiency who contact the agency of the available interpretation resources
- Distributing federal resources prohibiting discrimination against LEP individuals to its grantees, providers, contractors, and vendors
- Using public service announcements, non-English media, and community and faith-based resources to reach target audiences and notify them of communication services
- Prominently displaying appropriate language taglines on vital documents, web pages currently available in English only, technical assistance bulletins, and other outreach material
- Highlighting the availability of consumer-oriented materials in other languages on the department’s website.
Section 4: Training
Your language access plan should provide a description of how your organization will train its staff on its internal policies and procedures for providing language assistance services. Your organization should ensure that all employees understand the importance of providing language assistance and are able to connect individuals with the resources available. All employees should be aware of your language access policies and procedures and how to access interpretation or translation services when needed. Those who interact directly with customers, patients, or clients should be trained to work with interpreters as well as how to communicate effectively and respectfully with LEP individuals. Designate an office or a person to be responsible for this training.
You may choose to conduct internal training, contract with a professional language services provider, or a combination of both. Ongoing training should occur regularly enough to ensure that all employees understand whom to contact to access language and communication assistance services and what services are available. Continuing education can also help employees learn about new assistive technology and updates to best practices as community preferences and standards evolve.
Section 5: Evaluation
Finally, your language access plan should set out a framework for how your organization will monitor the efficacy of its efforts. Based on these evaluations, you should be able to update your plan, policies, and procedures as needed to ensure that your goals are being met. Determine metrics for success based on your industry, company, and community.
Some industries, like health care, can utilize outside reviews like the yearly “Secret Shopper” program conducted by the Center of Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of their evaluation metrics. This program measures health care providers’ quality of service and compliance with Medicare regulations by enlisting “secret shoppers” to conduct telephonic, virtual, and in-person healthcare interactions. Providing fast, efficient, accurate, and easy-to-access language services for shoppers who wish to interact in a language other than English or who have other communication issues can have a powerfully positive result on a healthcare organization’s CMS score. Conversely, failing to provide appropriate communications resources for patients can result in low scores and additional penalties from CMS.
Setting clear evaluation metrics will allow you to see how well you are doing and adjust as necessary. In conjunction with a regular re-assessment of your needs, you can add, subtract, or change services to respond as your organization and community’s needs evolve.
Further, regular evaluation can help you identify ancillary benefits of providing improved communication services. In an educational setting, offering a multilingual educational program not only improves the performance of LEP/ELL students but also can provide significant benefits to the community at large. These benefits include helping English-proficient students learn additional language skills, preserving culture, fostering respect for cultural diversity, and broader community involvement in the schools.
Language access plans aren’t one size fits all. Your plan should be custom designed to meet the challenges and goals of your organization. Unfortunately, that can be a barrier for some companies, which may perceive establishing a language access plan from the ground up as a daunting task.
A good starting point is to identify the top 3–5 languages spoken by the individuals your organization serves. Then, develop a plan for providing interpretation and translation into these languages as well as American Sign Language.
- Identify website and marketing materials that would benefit from or require translation or other means of multilingual accessibility.
- Identify documents related to your organization that require language access services like translation or supplemental explanation/localization.
- Determine your organization’s capacity, unmet needs, and an appropriate budget for providing various language access services.
- Outline the policies, procedures, and staff training that will be needed to implement the language access plan provisions.
- Plan for emergency situations.
Once you have this basic framework established, it will be easier for you to review more intricate compliance issues, tailor the plan to the evolving needs of your clientele and organization, and determine the plan’s effectiveness or shortcomings.
Developing a language access plan relies on both top-down leadership and the right boots on the ground. The combination is essential to demonstrate commitment to the policy ideals as well as day-to-day practices that implement those values.
Implementing a policy statement like that embraced by the U.S. Department of Justice in its own Language Access Plan is a way to make clear that access to communication is essential to the core mission of the organization itself:
- It is the policy of the Department of Justice that Department staff shall take reasonable steps to provide limited English proficient (LEP) persons with meaningful access to all programs or activities conducted both by the Department and by entities receiving funding from the Department.
- This policy is based on the principle that it is the responsibility of the Department and not the LEP person to take reasonable steps to ensure that communications between the Department and the LEP person are not impaired as a result of the limited English proficiency of the individual.
- Department staff shall take reasonable steps to effectively inform the public of the availability of language accessible programs and activities.
After you take steps to prioritize communication access as a core value of your organization, begin to implement concrete policies to effectuate that philosophy. Designate key roles for the individuals responsible for developing, monitoring, and updating your language access plan, tracking its budget and disbursing funds as necessary, assessing compliance and efficacy, and gathering program feedback. Allocate appropriate resources—including staff, funding, and time—to further the development and implementation of your language accessibility plan. Make language access and community connection an ongoing effort rather than a one-time consideration.
Working with a professional communication provider like United Language Group can help your organization with all aspects of developing and implementing a language access plan. A professional provider will:
- Help you evaluate what your organization needs to be compliant with applicable laws
- Explore how you can identify and meet the communication needs of your community
- Examine your current policies
- Craft a plan to incorporate your assets and address your shortcomings
- Develop a system to monitor the effectiveness and success of your efforts
A multi-faceted provider like United Language Group can also provide access to specialized professional communications resources that would be otherwise impossible for most organizations to provide directly in house.
- ULG engages local linguist teams around the world to ensure a deep, current understanding of localization trends and cultural accuracy, enabling industry-specific translation services for a wide variety of specialties.
- We offer interpreters in over 200 major languages, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over-the-phone, simultaneous, conference and meeting, video remote, and in-person/on-site interpreting services.
- We can provide access to the latest translation, interpretation, and assistive technology to respond quickly to specialized communication needs.
Contracting with an outside provider can allow your organization to economically and efficiently communicate with potential clients, patients, customers, or students in their preferred language or using assistive technology.
To expand your global reach and effectively communicate with non-English-speaking or LEP populations worldwide, you need skilled localization services and global marketing experience. From localizing corporate documents and ensuring compliance with local rules and customs to translating your website, training materials, and manuals, a professional global provider like United Language Group can do everything you need.