Aug 8, 2011


Language Access is Equal Access

There is a move to completely abolish the Office of Language Access under the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, according to Serafin Colmenares, Jr. 

Colmenares is the current executive director of OLA, an office established during the term of office of then Governor Linda Lingle to “ensure that no person is denied access to state and state-funded services due to their limited ability to speak, read, write or understand English.” 

The recommendation for OLA’s defunding, and then its complete abolition, came from the director of that department, Dwight Takamine

In the State of Hawaii, there are about 140,000 individuals who are not proficient in the English language. 

This number, a big chunk of the state population, represents the urgency of the need for interpreters and translators in order for these individuals to gain access to basic government services. 

At the heart of OLA is equal access. 

Equal access here is the ensuring that every individual in the State of Hawaii is not denied of her right to access state programs whether that individual understands English or not. 

This premise springs from the notion that language access—the access to all government programs through the language one is most at home with, which, in a country of migrants like the United States means the use of the first language of the immigrant—is a matter of civil, and thus human right. 

The federal government, through its many enactments, recognizes the fundamental character of this right.

And now, here is the twist.

A federal pronouncement defines this right in theory and practice, and a state defines it another way. 

Following this argument, the move to defund, and thus eventually to completely abolish this crucial service of providing  centralized oversight, coordination, and technical assistance to State agencies (the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Hawai‘i’s state government) and organizations that receive state funding” is a contradiction. 

The move to have it abolished will deprive the individuals with limited English proficiency to have access to government resources that are aimed to mainstream them into a life of full citizenship. 

The move to have it abolished will deprive us of oversight of those government and non-government organizations that receive funding from the state, and from the federal government. 

The move to have it abolished will deprive us of coordination work in the providing of efficient access to government programs most needed by individuals with limited English proficiency. 

The move to have it abolished will deprive us of technical assistance that we most need in making it certain that those LEP individuals who come into this land do not end up as liabilities but useful, even productive assets for our new homeland. 

For this is what we are as American people: welcoming, and with a welcoming heart. 

For this is what we are as the old, and the new, American people: fair and just.
For this is what we are as natural-born, or naturalized, American citizens: freedom loving, and capable of celebrating our differences. 

In our welcoming ways as well as in the fairness and justness of what we do is the very principle of our American nation, the principle of unity in diversity, in the ‘e pluribus unum—in the ‘out of many, one’—vision that has defined our homeland. 

One of the hallmarks of diversity is the respect for the new immigrant, the potentially new American that brings in so many gifts and talents, so much vision and hope, and so much love for our democratic way of life. 

There is no better of demonstrating that American welcome and its vast possibilities for a new American people except to be true to the very tenets of our democratic life.

Given this context, language access is equal access.

There is no short cut to this. 

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