Navigating a special education plan or getting a child the support services they need can be complicated. So how do you communicate and advocate for your kid if you’re deaf, blind or don’t speak English?
Families say finding interpreters in a timely manner who can both speak their language — whether that’s Amharic or American Sign Language — and also understand education jargon can be challenging and frustrating.
A new, comprehensive Washington state law that passed this spring will make it easier for students and families facing language barriers to access free, high-quality interpretation and support services. It also supports a training and credentialing program for interpreters working in educational settings, much like existing programs for medical and social services interpreters. Advocates say the legislation will have far-reaching effects, including increased family and student engagement, which leads to higher rates of academic achievement and graduation and overall self-esteem.
“This bill is so exciting and so complicated,” said Kaitie Dong, leadership development and education manager for OneAmerica, a local nonprofit immigrant and refugee advocacy organization. She said it centers “the experiences and voices” of students and families with limited spoken English skills.
There are federal laws, like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, that give people rights to communication aides like interpreters and teletypewriter services.
But efforts to formalize language interpretation training and practice in schools stalled in the Washington Legislature for at least the past eight years. Then in 2022, a new version of the bill received broad community and bipartisan support and passed 86-12. The new law focuses on spoken and signed language interpretation, and supporters hope its passage will pave the way for more resources and funding for written translations.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Tina Orwall, D-SeaTac, credited families, students and grassroots groups for working together to get the bill passed.
“Process is as important as policy and it was important that we really kept community members at the table,” said Orwall. The hard work now is to implement it and maintain the funding to do so, she said.
Validating families’ needs
The law requires schools to include families, interpreters and school personnel in the development of a language access plan and seek feedback on how well services are being provided. A statewide advisory committee will ensure representation and input from families, schools, interpreters and community members.
The practices outlined in the 12-page bill are already in place in some school districts. But in schools where the support and resources are lacking, families and students say this will be a game-changer.
In the past, aid Wai Yan “Winnie” Lee, a Kent mom, she’s had educators leave an individualized education program meeting because an interpreter called in sick or showed up late.
Lee speaks and reads some English but is most comfortable speaking her native Cantonese, and reading in traditional Chinese. Often, interpreters provided by the school speak a different dialect, and she’s been given school forms translated into simplified Chinese. These obstacles prevent her from fully understanding what’s happening.
“If I can’t understand the IEP, what is the point of these meetings?” she said.
The Google Translate tool is not a good substitute, she and others noted. Translation can be delayed, and the app can’t read ASL or interpret facial or cultural expressions. While the app includes 133 languages and dialects, Seattle Public Schools, Washington state’s largest district, serves families collectively speaking 147 languages and dialects.
The law requires all public schools to designate a language access liaison or “navigator.” That person will oversee how the school collects and reports data on languages spoken in the district, track requests for interpreters and collect feedback from participants on a school’s language-access provisions and the effectiveness of the interpretation services provided. That data will be shared to the district and state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of data we’ve never seen,” Orwall said.
A community service agency, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, in Kent helped lead the way for this legislation, with many of its members, like Lee, testifying in support of the bill.
Moses Perez, the advocacy and civic program manager for Open Doors, calls families and interpreters “subject experts” in language access needs and says having data and input will validate families’ concerns and needs.
“This gives every district a fighting chance if they want to provide equitable education for all through language access. This will have a meaningful impact on students and how they value their education,” said Perez.
By Oct. 1, schools must adopt a policy and procedures that meet their needs and incorporate the state models. Schools have until the 2023-24 school year to put plans into practice, with the exception of districts with both fewer than 1,000 enrolled students and fewer than 10 percent English-learner enrollment.
OSPI will form a new state language access advisory committee to help implement the law and recommend changes based on the new data and feedback. OSPI and the Washington Professional Educator Standards Board will develop the interpreter training and credentialing program.
Quan Tran, union president of Interpreters United Local 1671, said the program will help expand the education interpreters pool and make them eligible for union rights.
Funding sought for training, services
An ad hoc language access work group was established by the state in 2019. In October 2020, the work group reported its findings to the Legislature, including that just over half of school staff surveyed said funding was a barrier to providing a qualified, in-person interpreter for families, followed by lack of available in-person interpreters (41%) and lack of training (33%).
Emily Fung, advocacy and civic engagement lead for Open Doors, said that the initial estimated cost from the House for this legislation was $409,000 for the first year. Orwall said she is looking for funding for the navigator roles in schools.
Supporters say the new law will set precedents for how schools can communicate and engage with families in more meaningful ways.
“It is essential for families to fully understand information presented to them in order to make informed decisions. The legal language used in educational processes is far too complex to not have specifically trained interpreters,” Jana Parker, a parent of two students with disabilities in public schools, wrote in supportive testimony for the bill. Parker also serves on the Seattle Special Education PTSA Board.
Fung said her organization is working with OSPI to update families and communities on how the law is being implemented and how people can get involved.
Supporters also hope this new law inspires other sectors, from businesses to human-service providers, to rethink their own policies and practices.
Highline College student Mahad Dahir was diagnosed with autism at an early age, “which hindered my ability to communicate,” he said. His parents are from Somalia, where there are stigmas around learning differences and disabilities. Because of this, he said, it’s important for schools to provide culturally competent interpretation.
Dahir now lives in Burien, where many residents are immigrants and refugees. “It’s very critical for them to receive these resources, and not just in education,” he said. “We need to go all-out. We need to provide language access in all sectors.”