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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Work must begin on language access

In a state where one out of four residents speaks something other than English at home, the barrier presented by language is difficult to overlook.

Yet local government has all but ignored the issue for six years, leaving many whose English skills are poor with little help in securing the government services they deserve and, indeed, pay for.

By law, and in fairness, this is wrong.

In some painful cases, detailed by Advertiser writer Gordon Pang this week, the lack of simple translation services lets small problems deteriorate into tragedies. This adds up to a failure to cope with the reality of Hawai'i's multicultural population.

In 2000, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring all agencies receiving federal funds to comply with the Civil Rights Act by providing language assistance to those who qualify for services but have limited English proficiency.

Since then, the federal government has issued guidelines on compliance, but there's very little evidence that Hawai'i has acted. Cost is a legitimate issue, but to use cost as an excuse to postpone all action is inexcusable.

One surviving measure, House Bill 2778, encompasses both the "carrot" and "stick" approach.

The "carrot" would be creation of a language access office that would help state and county agencies develop plans for compliance with federal civil rights law.

In some cases, the costs of dealing with the language hurdle can be sizable, so lawmakers deserve a clear picture of the impact of new language policies. But in other cases, the problem may be one largely of making sure people know that services exist. That could keep expenses to a minimum.

The "stick" is a provision that could leave government agencies open to lawsuits. This element probably should be split off into a separate bill. This way, lawmakers can proceed incrementally, laying the groundwork for compliance before the lawsuits start. Otherwise, the entire process again will be paralyzed.

Making government accessible to all is the wisest course in the long run for Hawai'i. Let the work begin.