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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Four Ways to Enhance Language Access during Disaster Response and Recovery

Author: Cheryl A. Levine, PhD, Senior Advisor for At-Risk Individuals, Senior Policy Analyst Neelam Salman, JD, Civil Rights Analyst Amit S. Zigelman, MPH, Management Analyst
Published Date: 11/29/2018 5:14:00 PM
Category: Exercises & Trainings; Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery;

Creating Disaster Health Communications Your Community Can Understand

You probably know that your community includes people who find it difficult to speak, read or understand English, and it’s easy to underestimate the diversity of language access needs in our communities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 350 languages are spoken across the country. In addition, about 15 percent of American adults report some trouble hearing, 8.1 million people across the U.S. are visually impaired and approximately 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read.

Is your healthcare, public health, or emergency response organization ready to communicate effectively with all the people in your community who rely on you? Whether your organization already has a language access plan or you are just getting started, check out the Language Access and Effective Communication during Response and Recovery: A Checklist for Emergency Responders to learn more about ensuring effective language access for people in your community.

This checklist, which was developed by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in partnership with the HHS Office for Civil Rights, includes recommendations, specific action steps, and effective practices to assist emergency responders. The checklist also includes additional federal resources and tools for first responders. The checklist provides some basic principles you can use to communicate with various populations who have communication needs.

  • Identify Language Access Needs in Your Community: Researching is a great way to get started. Identify the major languages and dialects spoken in your community and identify people with disabilities and the types of disabilities. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Education are both great resources for learning about the different languages that are spoken in your community. Centers for Independent Living, your state Developmental Disabilities Council, and organizations that serve or advocate for people with disabilities can help you learn more about the community you serve.

  • Reach Out to Partners: To make the most of your organization’s limited resources, find partners who already work with these populations in your community every day and plan ways to work together during a disaster. Schools, local libraries, and community-based organizations can be great resources to help you connect with people who have limited English proficiency (LEP). Refugee resettlement programs and programs that teach English as a second language also can help you connect with LEP members of your community.

  • Create Clear, Concise Messages in Multiple Formats: Messages that are short, clear, and concise can be translated into other languages and messaging formats more effectively than long technical messages. In high stress situations like disasters, it can be difficult for individuals to process complex information. Everybody in your community can benefit from messages that are clear and concise. Work with TV, print, radio, and online platforms to share information in multiple formats.

  • Provide Effective Language Assistance Services: When you are communicating with LEP populations and people with disabilities that may have communication needs, you are going to need an interpreter and a translator for written materials. Be ready to translate materials into other languages, as well as Sign Language or braille.

Emergency responders and local HHS grantees may encounter challenges or deficiencies to language access and effective communication during disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Keep in mind that if your program is federally funded, your organization is legally required to ensure that people with LEP and people with disabilities can access emergency response and recovery services in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and other federal civil rights laws and guidance.

When public health, healthcare, and emergency response organizations plan in advance, they are better equipped to get vital health and safety information to LEP individuals and people with disabilities when seconds count. Check out the newly released checklist to see how you can help LEP individuals and people with disabilities in your community prepare for disasters and stay safe and healthy during response and recovery.


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