WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, today led a group of colleagues in introducing the Equal Access to Information Act to require the federal government to ensure language access and multilingual resources to all communities in the U.S. The bill would require demographic assessments by federal agencies to better serve all communities and would establish language access procedures that must be put in place by every agency in case of any emergency such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Language access and multicultural resources ensure that persons with disabilities and persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) receive information at the same speed as everyone else. 

More than 60 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English of which more than 40% have limited English proficiency. Additionally, approximately 38 million individuals in the U.S. are deaf or hard of hearing, 7.5 million have vision loss, 5 million cannot rely on speech to communicate, and 15 million live with an intellectual disability and require multiple formats of the same information.

“Making federal programs understandable and accessible for persons with LEP and for those with disabilities is not just a civil rights imperative, it can be a matter of life and death.  This is especially true in times of crisis like the ones we’re living under the COVID-19 pandemic which has disproportionately impacted immigrant and other minority communities,” said Sen. Menendez. “Shamefully, the Trump Administration ignored our requests to address this important issue. They relied on interpretation and translation, rather than ensuring all Americans had immediate access to critical, timely, culturally competent information and resources they needed to stay safe. We can’t allow our federal agencies to repeat this failure. The Equal Access to Information Act creates a roadmap to ensure critical language access and multilingual resources are available to all communities in the country regardless of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status.”

Senators Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (D- Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are cosponsors of the legislation.

“As our Nation is battling a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 156,000 Americans, it is imperative now more than ever that we ensure everyone has equal and timely access to federal government information and resources,” said Sen. Casey. “We must remove all barriers to accessing information about federal resources and programs, especially during a public health emergency. I urge my colleagues to support the Equal Access to Information Act, which would ensure federal agencies are able to quickly and efficiently communicate with people who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, or have limited English proficiency.”

“Ensuring that individuals with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency have equal access to accurate, up-to-date and easily understandable information regarding federal programs, health information and services available to them is common sense, period. Amid a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, when emergencies are more likely, we must uphold our commitment to civil rights by ensuring all communities have equal access to information to prevent further spread of the virus,” said Sen. Brown

“The pandemic has demonstrated the critical need to provide all communities access to timely, accurate information. Hawaii residents know this well—more than one in four speak a language other than English at home. The federal government must do more to ensure that the information it distributes is accessible to everyone—regardless of English language proficiency or disability. The Equal Access to Information Act creates a clear pathway to providing greater language access, particularly during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Hirono.

“During this pandemic, it is as important as ever to ensure that language and other barriers do not prevent people from getting important information about Federal programs,” said Sen. Warren. “This is why I'm joining my colleagues in cosponsoring the Equal Access to Information Act, to establish requirements for Federal agencies to ensure that individuals with limited English proficiency and people with disabilities can access the services, activities, programs, and benefits they need.” 

The legislation is supported by UnidosUS, National Disability Rights Network, National Association of the Deaf, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Learning Disabilities Association of America, National Center for Learning Disabilities, Justice for Aging, and CommunicationFIRST.

“The NAD is thrilled to endorse the proposed Equal Access to Information bill, which would formalize and clarify already existing mandates for accessible information including in American Sign Language as well as captioning. We commend Senator Menendez and his staff for ensuring that all 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people have full access to information shared to the public by federal agencies,” said Zainab Alkebsi, Policy Counsel for the National Association of the Deaf.

“CommunicationFIRST is pleased to endorse the Equal Access to Information Act, which will help ensure our community of children and adults who cannot rely on speech to be understood is no longer overlooked and left behind during emergencies," said Tauna Szymanski, Executive Director of CommunicationFIRST.

To ensure critical language access and a unified approach to streamline multilingual resources, the Equal Access to Information Act would:

  • Require the head of each agency to conduct a demographic assessment of persons with limited English proficiency and persons with disabilities that the agency serves or is likely to encounter.
  • Based on this initial assessment, every federal agency shall establish a new Language Access Working Group compiled by senior officials, internal communications personnel, and disability experts.
  • Requires the Language Access plan to be updated every year and reviewed by the Attorney General, with a 7 day trigger after any federally declared disaster or emergency.  This will ensure that any benefits or programs created to address the disaster or emergency are also made accessible to persons with LEP and persons with disabilities in a timely fashion. 
  • Builds on the Action Plan through the inclusion of multiple stakeholders for consultation such as; individuals with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, and their representative organizations, recipients, and other appropriate individuals or entities, to have an adequate opportunity to provide input in the development and implementation of each agency’s plan.

The text of the bill can be downloaded here.