USDA Guidance Calls for Greater Attention to Multilingual Services

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USDA-funded organizations need to plan for individuals with limited English proficiency.

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All entities receiving financial assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) may soon have to reassess the quality of the services they provide non-English speaking communities.

A proposed USDA guidance would require all affected entities to generate and follow a plan to ensure that persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) have meaningful access to language services. The guidance follows from an executive order that called on all federal agencies to implement multilingual programs, in compliance with a Title VI ban on discrimination on the basis of national origin.

All entities that receive USDA aid, including state and county agencies, colleges and universities, nursing homes and food banks, are expected to comply with the guidance. Failure to comply can lead to adverse action, including the termination of federal assistance.

The guidance primarily requires that entities create language services programs based on an assessment of four factors: the size and composition of the LEP population being served, the frequency of the services rendered to that population, the importance of those services, and the resources available for the program.

For those recipients that provide frequent and important services to a large LEP population, a more robust LEP program is expected. Such a more extensive program may include the provision of oral interpretation through bilingual staffing, contracted interpreters or trained volunteers, and written translation of vital documents such as application forms.

The USDA’s guidance is consistent with Executive Order 13116, issued by President Clinton in 2000 to improve the accessibility of services for persons with limited English proficiency. The United States Department of Justice was the first to issue guidance to federal aid recipients in 2002. Other agencies, however, were slow to follow suit.

In February 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder distributed a memorandum to agencies reiterating the “federal government’s renewed commitment to language access” and requesting that each remaining agency publish similar guidance.