Better Language Interpretation Crucial for New Social Security Commissioner

Better Language Interpretation Crucial for New Social Security Commissioner

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—As advocates for elders and people with disabilities anticipate President Obama’s choice of a new Social Security Commissioner, a group of us from the Strengthening Social Security Coalition presented our recommendations at a briefing on Capitol Hill last week calling for changes to improve the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) ability to serve large numbers of the program’s most vulnerable beneficiaries. That includes lower-income individuals, especially immigrants and those from ethnic groups.

The Social Security Coalition includes over 320 national and state organizations representing more than 50 million Americans. Our “Transition Report for a New Social Security Commissioner” covers a range of concerns from the agency’s overloaded staff to SSA’s need for enhanced research on retirement and disability.

Almost 2 Million Elders

One factor underlying all of these issues in our increasingly diverse population is the need for greater access to assistance for individuals with limited English proficiency. The organization I direct, the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC), whose staff helped coauthor the new report, has shown, that those struggling to understand English face serious obstacles in learning about and gaining access to government programs, such as Social Security.

The 2010 U.S. Census contains some startling statistics related to the number of older adults who are not proficient in English. More than one in seven (14.2 percent) of our nation’s 43 million adults 65-plus speak a language other than English at home. Among them, almost 2 million elders are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP), a term the federal government has standardized to refer to those who speak English less than “very well.”

The new report, developed with a range of organizations, such as the National Women’s Law Center, the Diverse Elders Coalition and Latinos for Secure Retirement, states, “It is essential that SSA communicate with individuals in a language in which they are proficient and that up-to-date informational material on benefits be provided in a variety of different languages.”

Among those applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—people requesting a small boost in their benefits because they have extremely low-incomes, a third seek this additional income support based on old age. Previous analysis by SSA showed that almost four in 10 of those older adults asked the agency to receive assistance in a language other than English.

Early Language-Access Leader

Previously, SSA was an early leader in language access among federal government agencies. For example, after SSA installed point-of-entry kiosks in its local field offices some years ago, advocates pointed out that they were generally working in English only. SSA instructed local offices to make them available in several of the most commonly spoken languages.

In fact, SSA has a very good policy of providing interpreters. It requires its offices to provide an interpreter at no charge on request and prohibits the use of children as interpreters. And the agency requires the same policy for state agencies performing disability determinations (DDSs).

However, as our report states, “At present, implementation is spotty, with advocates reporting that in many SSA offices LEP individuals are still asked to bring their own interpreters.”

Simply put, it is crucial that SSA communicate with individuals in a language they understand. And it needs to do more to ensure that its offices apply these regulations uniformly.

That means the administration needs to require more resources for training SSA personnel on the interpreter policy—including the additional time necessary to interview an individual with an interpreter.

The report also calls on the new commissioner, when appointed, to implement a systems change to fully implement SSA’s interpreter policy. Currently, SSA asks people for their language preference when they apply for benefits. But if the person doesn’t answer or the reply isn’t clear, the program defaults to English. SSA needs to eliminate the English default option.

In addition, SSA has increasingly come to rely on the use of telephone interpreter services as a primary means of serving LEP individuals. Although these are useful for simpler requests, telephone interpreter services should not be permitted for handling more complex matters and certainly not for administrative hearings or conferences.

The report recommends, “The best and most economical means of serving LEP individuals is through the use of bilingual SSA employees.” We believe that before picking up the telephone to call a general interpreters’ service, agency offices should look for an interpretation-trained SSA employee, someone who knows the program, is more apt to be more sensitive to the person’s needs and understands the confidentiality requirements.

Serving Immigrant Communities

As we concluded in the report, “The new commissioner needs to make a concerted effort, as hiring opportunities arise, to hire more bilingual staff for assignment to field offices,” particularly where there is a high level of language access needs, such as newer immigrant communities.

Currently, SSA provides its notices in English. And it offers only some, but not all, in Spanish. The agency provides none of its notices in any other language. To address this, SSA needs to provide all notices in Spanish and in other major languages spoken by recipients of its programs. It also needs to do a better job of identifying the language spoken by each of the people it serves.

Even though SSA has a number of publications on its program benefits in 16 different languages, these are only available online and are no longer stocked in local Social Security offices. A majority of people over age 65, especially those with low-incomes and those with limited English proficient, still do not have consistent Internet access—in any language—including African-American households.

Clearly, SSA policy needs to be rethought and informational publications should be made available to those who visit local Social Security offices.

The ability for all those who receive Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits to understand their benefits and their rights is essential. With the appointment of a new Social Security commissioner, NSCLC and other advocates believe these and other fixes can and should happen.

Paul Nathanson directs the National Senior Citizens Law Center. He co-chairs the Strengthening Social Security Coalition’s Adequacy of Benefits Committee and NSCLC staff contributed to new report.