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Language Access

This page provides language access requirements and resources for use by local governments in Washington State, including information on civil rights compliance issues related to Limited English Proficiency, language access plans, language requirements relating to voting rights, court requirements, and other language services.



Overview 

Language access is a critical component of equal access to local government services and improved engagement. Effective communication allows residents to feel comfortable talking to local government staff across all departments as well as elected officials. This is especially important for an individual with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) or for whom English is not their native language.

Federally funded entities are required to take reasonable steps that provide meaningful access to services and programs for LEP individuals, such as written translations of documents or oral language assistance from a qualified interpreter, either in-person or using digital communication options.


Federal Requirements for LEP and General Civil Rights Compliance

All organizations and agencies that receive federal support are required to ensure their customers with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency have access to vital information per the following:

  • Executive Order 13166 (2000) requires federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services for LEP individuals, and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to these. The Executive Order also requires federal agencies and local governments receiving federal funds take reasonable steps to facilitate communication with LEP persons.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) safe harbor provision recommends that, at a minimum, government entities translate vital information into another language for each LEP-identified language group. An LEP group is one that constitutes 5% of the population, or 1,000 people, whichever is less.

Federal LEP Resources


State LEP Requirements 

There are state statutes related to language access for LEP persons and to prohibiting access to services and programs. Examples include:

  • Chapter 2.42 RCW  Requires interpreters be provided for legal proceedings.
  • Chapter 2.43 RCW — Requires interpreters for non-English speaking persons.
  • Chapter 49.60 RCW  Prohibits discrimination across broad areas and for a variety of reasons.
  • RCW 74.04.025 — Requires bilingual services for non-English-speaking applicants and recipients.
  • WAC 388-271-0010 — Defines LEP services.

State LEP Resources

State agencies and departments offer information, resources, and research on best practices for improving language access. Here are a few:


Language Access Plans

A language access plan (LAP) is a document that spells out how to provide services to LEP individuals. Language access plans should be tailored to individual organizations, departments, or agencies. LAPs may include similar sections, such as a needs assessment, language services offered, notices, training for staff, and program evaluation.

The DOJ’s Language Access Assessment and Planning Tool (2011) offers a blueprint for agencies and organizations on developing an LAP. It addresses conducting a self-assessment and developing language access policy directives, implementation plan, and procedures. It includes a model LAP, self-assessment questions, and more.

Local Government Ordinances, Documents, and LAPs

Generally, local governments may employ one or more of the following tools in an LAP: interpretation services (in-person and remote); written translation services, staff who speak more than one language, partnership with an organization that can provide LEP support, and/or clear notice about the availability of language services. Here are sample LAPs and ordinances in support of LAP adoption:


Voting Rights Acts – State and Federal

The Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), Chapter 29A.92 RCW, enacted in 2018, supports and protects citizens’ voting rights and fair representation in opportunities to be elected to local government councils and commissions, and it addresses legal requirements for language access. When local governments propose to change to district-based elections, either voluntarily or upon a WVRA petition from a voter, then written and verbal notice needs to be provided by the government in languages diverse residents of the community can understand. Per RCW 29A.92.050 (1), a "significant segment of the community" means 5% or more of residents, or 500 or more residents, whichever is fewer, residing in the political subdivision. 

Several Washington counties are required by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), 52 U.S.C.V. Section 10301, et. seq., to provide multilingual election information and ballots. These requirements are based on populations of 10,000 or more, or 5% or more, persons speaking different languages residing withing a jurisdiction. The minority language provisions of the federal VRA were added in 1975. These minority language mandates are found in Section 203 of the VRA and in federal regulations 28 C.F.R. Part 55.

As noted, some counties already provide election material in languages other than English. For example, King County provides election materials and ballots in a number of languages including English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Pierce County provides materials in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean. Adams, Franklin, and Yakima counties must provide ballots and election information in English and Spanish. 

Language Access and Elections Resources


Washington State Courts 

Providing language access services in court is essential and helps participants to meaningfully engage in the judicial process. Equal and fair access to courts requires measures to reduce and eliminate barriers to understanding and presenting the facts and how the law applies in court decisions. Per RCW 2.43.090, language assistance plans are required for each trial court in Washington State. These plans provide for interpreter services for access to civil and criminal proceedings in the courts.  

Sample Washington Court LAPs

The Washington Administrative Office of the Courts’ Deskbook on Language Access in Washington Courts (2017) addresses access for limited English proficient and deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind (D/HH/DB) persons to court services, and includes a Model Language Access Plan for courts. The local government samples below closely follow the model strategy.


Law Enforcement and Community Outreach 

For law enforcement, language barriers can impede effective and accurate communication of important rights, obligations, and services, and it can hamper the ability of LEP persons to communicate in difficult situations. Hampered communication with LEP victims, witnesses, alleged perpetrators, and community members can present local police officers with safety, evidentiary, and ethical challenges.

Some local law enforcement agencies have taken proactive measures to build trust and strengthen relationships by conducting outreach to LEP communities. By building trust, law enforcement can advance their core mission of providing public safety. When community members know and trust their local officers, they are more likely to report crime and to work with police on neighborhood crime-reduction strategies.

Law Enforcement and Community Outreach Resources

Local Government Police Department Documents


Technology Tools for Language Access 

Some local governments choose to use external translation services that provide both on-site and on-demand options and can cover thousands of languages. Sample services are below:


Recommended Resources

  • Police Executive Research Forum — PERF is an independent research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing. Since its founding in 1976, PERF has identified best practices on fundamental issues such as reducing police use of force; developing community policing and problem-oriented policing; using technologies to deliver police services to the community; and evaluating crime reduction strategies.
  • MRSC
  • U.S. Census Bureau        
    • American Community Survey — Produced annually, the ACS is the premier source for detailed population information and language use, which can help a local government understand the demographic changes taking place in their communities and determine where and how to direct language access resources.
    • Language Mapper — Displays language data from the ACS in an interactive map, which shows the concentration of LEP individuals.
    • American Fact Finder — Provides access to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, including information on housing, economics, governments, and employment.

Last Modified: May 25, 2021