Language Access, the Law and Elders' Rights

By Hsiao, Katharine | Aging Today, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

Language Access, the Law and Elders' Rights


Hsiao, Katharine, Aging Today


The 2010 Census data contains some startling statistics related to the number of older adults who are not proficient in English. More than 14.2 percent of our nation's 23 million adults older than 65 speak a language other than English at home. In addition, more tiian 8.3 percent, or about 1.9 million elders, are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP)- a term the federal government has standardized to refer to those who speak English less than "very well."

Federal laws protect the rights of LEP elders, and require state and local agencies that receive federal funds to provide meaningful access, including interpretation and translation services.

In nine states, 10 percent of older adults are LEP. Additionally, nationally more than 4 million Medicare beneficiaries (including older adults and individuals with disabilities) are LEP. Most remarkably, more than 38 percent of all Supplemental Security Income applicants ages 65 and older, who are by definition extremely low-income, asked the Social Security Administration for interviews in non-English languages in 2003.

Some Elders Won't Become Fluent

Many LEP elders arrive in the United States at an advanced age (as refugees from war-torn countries, for example), and achieving fluency in a new language is not realistic. Unlike their younger counterparts who assimilate more easily through education and workplace exposure, many older adults are isolated or have health issues that may preclude or hinder English language acquisition.

Federal law provides significant legal protection for LEP individuals. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits national origin discrimination, which has been found by courts to include language discrimination. Generally, the law requires that LEP individuals not receive services more limited in scope or lower in quality than non-LEP individuals, or be subject to unreasonable delays in the delivery of services.

LEP individuals also cannot be required to provide or pay for their own interpreters. Executive Order 13166 requires that all recipients of federal monies (those receiving Older Americans Act grants, or funds from any federal agency) must provide "meaningful access" for LEP individuals. …

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