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What is the connection between Language Access, Sexual Violence, and Racism?

Making connections: Language access, sexual violence, and racism

What is Language Access?

 Language justice is the right of people to communicate in the language that is most comfortable for them. Language access assures that the same services  offered to English-speaking individuals are offered to everyone. According to the National Center on Law and Elder Rights, “Language access rights are guaranteed under federal law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its corresponding regulations protect against discrimination on the basis of national origin. Courts have interpreted this protected class to include spoken language.”

Language access is a fundamental right that all people have a right to.  Many people assume language access issues only affect Limited English Proficient (LEP), English as a Second Language, or Deaf people. The truth, however, is that language access affects us all, even those of us whose first language is English.  For example, imagine you are  about to have surgery. Your doctor tells you that you must  follow the preparation instructions for the surgery to be successful. Then imagine the information you are given is  written in Old English from medieval times. 

Language access ensures not just that services be in a specific language, but that they are possible to understand. Explanations with overly elevated language, jargon, or confusing word choice are often barriers to vital comprehension. Doing the work of language access means  assuring that those who do not speak, read or write can also fully utilize, participate in, and contribute to programs and services- including but not limited to print media and social media, in person and online, via telephone, webinar, web-based virtual meeting software, etc. 

Another important segment of society to consider and accommodate for are low-literacy or visually-impaired individuals and communities. According to The Literacy Project, the average American reads at a 7th grade level. However, given that this is an average, a large portion of the population therefore has a lower level, or identifies as not literate. In fact, 54% of Americans between 16-74 years old ( nearly 130 million people) read below a sixth-grade level. This means the majority of the general population may not be able to comprehend materials written at a 7th grade level- yet another barrier of access to receiving support, intervention, and aid.

A person’s literacy level is not a reflection of their intelligence. It’s also not an indicator of laziness or a lack of motivation. Many individuals facing illiteracy did not have opportunities to learn, and are more likely to have been born into cycles of poverty. However, many people with a low literacy level may feel  a large degree of shame and fear of judgment to the point that survivors are unlikely to outwardly express “I don’t understand what this means” or “I don’t read very well.” Assumptions about a survivor's literary ability  should never be made.  We should assume the reality that many folks are not receiving the help they need because they fall into a low-literacy category which has gone unconsidered.

 According to the National Center on Law and Elder Rights, “Language access rights are an important component of culturally competent services; the number of LEP older adults is growing.”


What are the statistics on Language Access?

As noted by the National Center for Access to Justice, “more than 25 million people in the United States have limited proficiency in the English language.” According to the Commission on Language Learning, there are more than 350 languages utilized across the United States, including 169 Native American and Native Alaskan Indigenous languages.  The second largest language spoken is Spanish, with two out of every three non-English speakers speaking Spanish.   The United States is home to many linguistic enclaves- areas or neighborhoods where the majority of people speak a language other than English.  In many areas of the United States English is the only language spoken by more than 95% of the population.  In other parts of the county a language other than English is the primary language for more than half the population.. “ Research shows that 25 million people (age five and over) identify as unable to speak English at a proficient level. 


What’s the difference between translation and interpretation?

Interpretation relates to spoken language (usually done on the spot) which conveys similar meaning, even if it's not word for word. For example, many idioms or slang phrases are interpreted because they wouldn’t make sense if they were translated word for word. Translation, on the other hand, deals more often with written content and conveying exact meanings.

This is a significant concept to grasp, and further explains why automatic translation tools aren’t always sufficient in providing the depth and clarity people have a right to- especially surrounding serious issues like health, laws, housing, and sexual violence support.  As we mention on our Language Access page  “Words and meanings around sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault (collectively referred to as sexual violence), look and sound very different in different languages and cultures. As such, we cannot talk about sexual violence the same way in every language because many of the terms and concepts used in English do not translate to other languages. Words and meanings around sexual violence also look very different among cultures who share language. We strive to be mindful of the connections among spoken and visual language, culture, religion, and nationality, and the ways in which survivors tell their own stories in their own words, languages, and modes of self expression.”

What is the relationship between Language Access and Ableism?

Inadequate or non-existent language access services are a common form of ableism. According to Ashley Eisenmenger in Ableism 101, “ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior” or that the average person is without a disability by default. Ableism is the underlying force which creates assumptions that a person by default is non-disabled, has a set of expected learning styles, and/or reads at a certain level. Issues of ableism are connected with language access because both imply a barrier which blocks people from getting vital information and services they need in order to serve a “dominant population”. Often times, language access and ableism go hand and hand- for example, in the case of deaf and hard of hearing populations or the visually impaired. 


How is Language Access Related to Sexual Violence?

Just as sexual violence impacts every member of the population, information on sexual violence (including what is it, how to get help, prevention strategies, and general awareness) must be able to reach every member of the population. This cannot happen if it is inaccessible. Even beyond ensuring that prevention and intervention materials and services are accessible, language access is often more deeply imbedded into sexual violence perpetration. For example, individuals perpetrating sexual harassment may feel more empowered to do so if they know their victim is less likely to report due to language barriers (such as English only forms and pathways), thinks their victim doesn’t fully understand rights and laws, or believes that their victim cannot comprehend the meaning of the words or gestures they use to harass them. Survivors often worry they will not be believed- a feeling which is often heightened when they aren’t able to directly communicate their experience. Abusers often feel empowered to commit acts of harm when they sense their victim is already vulnerable. For example, research shows that undocumented women face higher rates of sexual violence due to fear that reporting might alert authorities to their immigration status. Perpetrators often know this. In other cases, perpetrators often succeed in their attempts to further isolate victims from local support networks when they are the only person who speaks on the victims behalf (meaning they often act as their translator or cultural broker, being the only person through whom the victim can communicate in English). 


How is Language Access related to Cultural Diversity?

Concepts of language do not just pertain to the spoken word, but are also part of larger understandings of cultural competency. For example, Ethnomed notes that some types of abuse tactics may be unique to victims from diverse cultural backgrounds, and must be understood holistically beyond just translating sexual violence concepts directly into a victims native tongue. Those abuse tactics might be convincing a victim they will lose custody of their children by reporting, convincing them that his violence is only criminal when it happens in public, threatening to harm the victims family member in their home country, threatening shame upon them, isolating them from family or friends, or threatening to report them to INS (especially in cases in which the abuser is a visa co-signer). 


Do survivors have unique language access needs?

Every survivor is different and so are their needs. Survivors may experience internal thoughts and feelings that make them uncomfortable talking about the issue, which is made even more difficult when there are language access barriers. Without comfortable communication, it’s hard for survivors to feel safe in discussing their experiences, understanding input, and feeling confident that they are being understood by others. Survivors must feel like they are the owners of their own story, their own voice, and have control of the narrative in order to feel supported and empowered. Furthermore, they must have the same choice options as English speaking survivors and not just receive a ‘one size fits all’ framework. 

Enduring sexual and gendered violence is extremely traumatic, and as such, trauma-informed approaches must go hand in hand with language access. For example, just as an LGBTQIA+ survivor might feel more comfortable speaking with an LGBTQIA+ aligned counselor, a survivor from a specific cultural background may feel better understood and safer when speaking about their experiences to someone from that same culture, or within their native tongue. Given how varied terms, norms, and expressions are, it is essential that no gaps in understanding exist due to linguistic barriers. Acts of sexual and gendered violence are also understood in different terms and without understanding these, advocates may struggle in reaching victims or understanding how to meet their needs. Inversely, survivors who speak non-English languages or are from various cultural backgrounds may not understand what services are available to them, and what they entail. This is especially true when considering the complexity of the legal system in the United States. For example, a person who wishes to make a sexual assault report may not understand that may be asked to do a pelvic exam, understand what their rights to privacy art, or their right to say no to anything they do not wish to do. 

How is Language Access embedded in racism?

Putting materials in only the English language when there is need among non-English speakers is a form of ethnocentrism- the act of centering one's own culture, country, or language as superior or most important. When we prioritize English-only services and materials, we are serving the same outcome. Furthermore, linguistic racism (defined as racism based on accent, dialect and speech patterns) happens not only between but within speakers of the same language. This connection is called racio-lingustics [pronounced ray-see-oh linguistics].  As Samy Alim explains, “Racio-linguistics examines how language shapes race and how race shapes language. It’s a field that grew out of a need to understand that there is a close relationship between race, racism and language and how these processes impact our lives across domains like politics and education.” In the United States, there is a specific history which provides depth in understanding the role it plays in discrimination today. 

In “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy”, Dr. April Baker-Bell outlines how social segregation based on speech patterns was a frequent tactic among white slave owners to isolate and further brand those deemed free and educated from the enslaved. This linguistic preference did not end, but instead evolved into a belief that those who speak a specific form of English are inherently smarter, better renters, more apt for loans more trustworthy (etc.) which continues the perpetuation of White Supremacy norms. 

  In fact, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BE) speakers (once known as  “Ebonics”)  face high judgment and discrimination, even though it is an official dialect, with its own set of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary rules. Baker-Bell notes, ‘‘The belief that there is a homogenous, standard, one-size- fits-all language is a myth that normalizes white ways of speaking English and is used to justify linguistic discrimination on the basis of race”, and “dismiss[es] Black English as ‘poor grammar and ignorance’,  ignoring the fact that it possesses all the components of a valid language and has, in fact, been recognized as such.”


Why is Language Access essential for prevention?

If we want to end sexual violence, we must also be committed to ending all forms of violence including but not limited to racism, ableism, anti-Blackness, transphobia, and other harms. Inaccessibility to conversations and interventions around sexual violence causes harm and further violence.  As we mention in “The Importance of Language Access”, “When sexual assault prevention materials or rape crisis intervention services aren’t made accessible to any given member of the community regardless of their language and culture, it not only undermines our collective mission to end sexual violence everywhere- its perpetrates forms of symbolic violence through ethnocentric, xenophobic, ableist, and racist practices. When we imagine that the default victim is a white, college educated, standard English speaking, hearing, neurotypical individual, we create a biased standard whereby we create a stereotype for who victims are, and what they look and sound like. As a result, we concentrate resources, aid, intervention, and healing towards historically privileged populations, perpetuating inequality and contributing to cycles of violence and injustice.” Language access goes beyond culturally mindful interpretations and easy to understand explanations- it’s also vital for creating new norms that prevent future harm. For example, young people forming their identities benefit greatly from access to information about pronouns and gender identity terms, as it helps them in their formation of who they are, how they want to be addressed, and their true sense of self. As this becomes more normative practice, harms like transphobia are able to be uprooted and challenged because it is no longer on the margins of awareness.