On this month’s 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, our collective consciousness revisits the effects of that disaster and, in particular, the needs of communities of color and those who have fewer resources. One large lesson from that catastrophe was the need for language assistance from federal emergency resources.  

In the average American’s daily life, few things are as taken for granted as the ability to communicate. Getting a driver’s license, registering to vote and enrolling in and using health insurance—all these experiences are profoundly more difficult when you are one of the 25 million Americans who are limited English proficient (LEP). This week we celebrate the 15th anniversary of an executive order that, while far lesser-known than some of its civil rights counterparts, has been a powerful force in helping people access opportunities and public services across the spectrum of civic life. 


Signed by President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDemocrats are playing voters on their fantasies for impeachment George Conway backs up Clinton on Mueller report: 'If she's with the Constitution, I'm with her' Top Dem: Supreme Court has 'no role' in impeachment MORE in 2000, Executive Order (EO) 13166 requires federal agencies to ensure that the services they, and those receiving their financial assistance, provide are meaningfully accessible for LEP persons. EO 13166 reinforces the obligations that federal agencies and their funding recipients have under Title VI of the Civil Right Act of 1964, which prohibits national origin discrimination. Language discrimination is a form of national origin discrimination. 

A broad and diverse segment of the nation’s population speaks languages other than English. The Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations, for example, speak more than 100 languages combined, representing incredible linguistic diversity. Over 30 percent of Asian Americans cannot speak English at all or speak it less than very well.  

Crisis situations like Katrina most clearly highlight how diverse communities rely on interpretation and translated resources to access life-saving information. Meanwhile, language access plays an important and ongoing role in everyday situations. When federal agencies and the entities they fund translate resources about individuals’ rights or how they can enroll in programs, or when they provide a translator in court, they help LEP people communicate. The ability to communicate means that LEP Americans are able to understand and engage with their public service providers, and ultimately be more active and integrated in their communities.   

In the healthcare context, language barriers can lock a person out of the care they need, or open new doors to a better tomorrow. Language access has helped people like Hoang, a long-haul fisherman in Louisiana who finally qualified for health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Hoang, who is LEP, would never have been able to get enrolled without the assistance of a bilingual Vietnamese interpreter. Hoang learned that he has Hepatitis B, a viral infection that can be fatal if not treated. With his insurance card, Hoang is now getting the treatment he needs. 

In the 15 years since Clinton put pen to paper, EO 13166 has transformed the landscape of civic life for millions of diverse Americans, but there is far more that must be done. The millions of Americans who are uninsured and eligible for coverage as a result of the ACA and Medicaid expansions are counting on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide enrollment assistance and make sure the Marketplaces work for all communities. President Obama’s administration can make this happen by providing translated notices so that when people need to make a change to their health insurance or realize they didn’t submit the right documentation, they understand what is at stake. HHS can also work to strengthen implementation and enforcement of the ACA’s anti-discrimination provision, Section 1557. Designating language access coordinators in Washington and regional offices can help to protect the rights of non-English speakers by ensuring agency-wide compliance with civil rights protections. These are some of the steps that will ensure that the mandate of EO 13166 continues to have teeth. 

The anniversary of EO 13166 is a reminder of the power of the presidency to act in the interests of our communities when there are unfulfilled needs that must be addressed. Obama and his administration should use this milestone as not just a reflection, but an opportunity to ensure a more equal and inclusive America.

Chin is president & CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, which influences policy, mobilizes communities and strengthens organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AA & NHPI).