Clinton orders improved access for non-English speakers

Federal agencies must ensure that the programs they run are accessible to people who are not proficient in English, President Clinton said in an executive order issued Friday.

The order refers to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin. Under the order, each agency must prepare a plan to improve access to its programs for those who aren't fluent in English. The plans are due to the Department of Justice within four months.

A 1974 Supreme Court case involving Chinese students who received a public education solely in English-even though they did not speak English-set the standard for ensuring that language barriers did not exclude individuals from participating in federally assisted programs. The Court reasoned in Lau v. Nicholas (414 U.S. 563) that since the Chinese students received fewer benefits from the educational system than the English-speaking students, the school had violated Title VI.

In 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a memo to agency heads advising them to make sure all individuals, regardless of national origin, are able to equally enjoy the benefits of federally financed programs.

The group protected by the order includes those born in other countries, some children of immigrants born in other countries, and those born in the United States with limited English proficiency (LEP). While agencies may already be in compliance with the order, Clinton asked all agency heads to reexamine their existing guidance to ensure they're doing everything they can for LEP individuals.

Agencies must take into account various factors in devising their programs including, the number or proportion of LEP individuals in a program, how often LEP individuals use the program, the importance of the service provided by the program-for example, federally assisted schools and hospitals provide for more basic needs than a federally assisted zoo or theater-and the type of resources available to federally assisted recipients.

Each agency is responsible for determining whether written or oral translations are more beneficial and cost-effective, depending on the situation.

Agencies should refer to the LEP Guidance for program compliance standards.

Following review and approval by the Justice Department, each agency will publish its guidance document in the Federal Register for public comment.

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