The number of U.S. residents who speak English "less than very well."
Source: Census Bureau
Early on, Basma Eid, the national programs manager at Freedom To Thrive, an abolitionist organization, realized the pandemic contained a sort of blessing in disguise. Without general life demands taking her away from home, it became easier for Eid to connect with her neighbors in Queens, particularly by volunteering with mutual aid efforts. As a borough, Queens is often considered one of the world's linguistic capitals. But when vaccines began rolling out, it became clear that providing adequate language resources hadn't been a priority.
When New York City entered its initial vaccine phase, Eid hit up an elderly Arabic-speaking Egyptian couple she had met through phone-banking to see if they were able to get an appointment. She ended up assisting the couple navigating what seemed like an endless amount of hurdles to receive their shots. First, Eid and the couple learned that appointments couldn't be booked in person. So right off the bat, "you need to be able to use the computer, be on the internet, and read English. There was no information that was translated that I found," Eid tells Mic. At the appointments themselves, the couple needed to fill out paperwork in English — a language that they can neither read nor write. Eid also had to translate information for the couple about potential vaccine side effects.
The pharmacy Eid and the couple went to had a sign asking if people needed interpretation help, with Arabic as an option. However, Eid says, "If you actually read Arabic and you see what's written, no Arabic speaker could actually read what the text was. It wasn't translated properly. All the letters were not connected so it didn't make any sense. You could tell someone who doesn't speak the language created this thing."
In 2018, about 25 million people reported to the Census Bureau that they speak English "less than very well." Insufficient language resources in the U.S. far predate the pandemic, as Zowee Aquino, a community health organizer at the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium's (NAKASEC) Virginia branch, told Mic in an email. "Prior to the pandemic, language access was generally hit-or-miss (both in health care and in general)," she wrote, "and regionally inconsistent based on my experiences in southern, central, and northern Virginia."
Some organizations utilized language lines to help but, Aquino explained, "the quality of translation was inconsistent depending on who the interpreter was." As a result, community members assumed the responsibility of providing their own language support, just as Eid did for the elderly couple she assisted.
Putting the onus of ensuring access onto individuals is a dangerous game. The couple Eid assisted don't have any children or family to assist them — and it was just by happenstance that they knew Eid. "It's really hard to know that just per chance I happened to meet them," Eid says. "Had I not met them, I don't know what the situation would be. And this is just one family. This is just one couple in a neighborhood of thousands of people."
Rather than leaving community members to struggle alone or rely on individual connections, NAKASEC began working to address the issue. In January 2021, NAKASEC conducted a survey to gauge attitudes among Asian communities in Virginia towards the coronavirus vaccine. The survey found that people wanted the vaccine. "However, the primary barrier and recommendation that was identified in this survey was provision of in-language information and resources," Aquino wrote to Mic. "Ultimately, we want community members (Asian American or otherwise) to be able to self-advocate and make informed choices."
One of NAKASEC's biggest victories in ensuring community members have the resources necessary to self-advocate comes out of its work on the Virginia "VAX-in-VA" statewide pre-registration phone system. At one point, people who called 1-877-VAX-IN-VA and requested an interpreter were put on hold before the call eventually dropped. In addition, only English and Spanish were offered as language options, despite the fact that Korean, Vietnamese, Amharic, Arabic, and dozens of other languages are also spoken in the state.
"As of this week, the state's phone pre-registration system now features an expanded phone menu with multiple languages for callers to choose at the beginning of the call. Options 2-6 (Spanish, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese) are said in that language. Option 8 is for other languages," Aquino explained. "All but two counties in the state currently use the state's centralized system."
In Philadelphia, Devon Stahl, a communications and development associate at Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), told Mic in an email that PCDC quickly saw how many members of Asian immigrant communities — who often work essential jobs or in industries severely impacted by the pandemic, like food and hospitality — were effectively shut out from the city's vaccination program. "In addition," Stahl wrote, "the city's vaccination registration was also solely online — this further prevented Chinatown elders who face digital inequity from accessing/navigating the registration site."
The registration portal is also only available in English. To make up for this, Stahl said, "PCDC went door-to-door and phone-banked more than 300 residents in PCDC's housing developments to overcome this digital barrier and help register eligible residents."
The organization didn't stop there. Last month, PCDC partnered with the independently-owned Sunray Pharmacy to establish the Crane Chinatown COVID-19 Vaccination Site, where nearly 400 people have received their first dose of the vaccine. The partnership "sought to overcome language and digital barriers by registering and vaccinating 376 Chinatown residents/workers," Stahl told Mic. Clinic staff and over 30 volunteers provided language support in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean during the inoculation sprint.
Beyond established nonprofits, community mutual aid networks are also taking on the task of providing non-English language resources. Rachel Shuman, a social worker involved with the Astoria Mutual Aid Network (AMAN) in Queens, New York, told Mic in an email, "We could really see that there were a lot of shortcomings here in New York City. There was interest among people at AMAN to get a project started specifically to address vaccine access, but there wasn't anyone organizing it."
So, Shuman and another volunteer helped push a meeting that ultimately led to the group's development of its own vaccine project. Although Team Vaccine is still in its beginning stages, the project has recruited volunteers that speak some of the common languages in Astoria, like Arabic, Spanish, Greek, and Bengali. Shuman said, "We're going to try to connect with people through our existing involvement in the community, like through the food pantries and Open Streets [a city initiative to close certain streets to car traffic to make more outdoor space for pedestrian use]. We'll try to use some of the volunteers who speak those languages to help people set up appointments."
"Language access is a standard of practice in ensuring that spaces are inclusive."
One day, the pandemic will end. But the need for language access will not. While organizations like NAKASEC and PCDC, or involved community members like Shuman and Eid, are all trying to address the current moment, they're also thinking about what is needed to ensure this moment never happens again. For Stahl, that looks like Philadelphia developing a citywide effort "to ensure that social services are language-accessible from beginning to end."
For Aquino, in Virginia, "Our main suggestions for the state and local level are twofold: one, disaggregated data on the non-English languages spoken within localities; and two, explicit guidelines to provide support to non-English speaking communities." She sees the solution not as providing some sort of blanket support, but as recognizing that "each community is different." There needs to be information about which communities need what language support, and which agencies can help distribute resources. "Similarly," she added, "creating explicit guidelines to support non-English speaking communities will ensure a consistent standard for equitable support across localities."
How do you determine what language materials are needed? Aquino advised that providing translation and interpretation services for all languages spoken by at least 5% of community members accessing services at any given place is a good start. And yes: Providing these materials might be costly. But as Eid pointed out, funding arguments aren't really about whether or not the dollars exists; they're mostly a conversation of what officials are choosing to prioritize. In a city that spends billions of dollars on its police force, for example, it's hard to entertain arguments that New York can't fund better language resources. As Eid said, "There's always money for criminalization, but there's never money for what folks need."
Overall, Eid points to the need for a shift in how access is understood. "Accessibility isn't just about, 'we know we have someone who attends this event with this specific access need.' The access need should be the standard," she says. "Language access is a standard of practice in ensuring that spaces are inclusive. Language is never the reason that a person cannot understand or participate in something."
Aquino offered a similar reframing. "Language justice is not just a matter of access; it is a matter of power," she wrote. "As our community organizer and language justice leader, Sarah Choi, states: Communication is one of the first skills we learn as humans — from crying and kicking our feet to reading and writing. There is power in communication, and when people are allowed to communicate their needs, ideas, [and] feelings, they can build power for themselves and others."