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Language Access

D.C. Official Helps People Understand One Another

New Law Requires Agencies To Translate and Interpret

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page C05

When she was growing up, Aryan Rodriguez was struck by some people's response when her grandparents struggled with English.


Aryan Rodriguez, the District's language-access director, is coordinating efforts by city agencies to break down language barriers. She says she has been impressed by agency directors' willingness to make changes. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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"I never understood that -- if you speak louder, they'd be able to understand you better," she said.

Now Rodriguez is seeking a better way to help people who aren't fluent. As the District's language-access director, she is coordinating efforts by city agencies to comply with a new law requiring them to provide interpreters and translations of vital documents.

Rodriguez, who took charge of the new post in August, said she has been impressed by agency directors' willingness to make changes.

"They've looked at it as, 'There's no other choice but to do this, especially with how diverse the Washington area is getting,' " said Rodriguez, who is originally from Puerto Rico.

The number of D.C. residents with limited English proficiency grew from about 30,000 to 38,000 in a decade, according to the 2000 Census. They make up about 7 percent of the population.

The Language Access Act, which became law in April, requires nearly two dozen city agencies to take steps to ensure that such residents have equal access to services. The agencies must have translators and provide official materials in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Amharic, an Ethiopian language.

Rodriguez, 26, is used to moving between cultures. An Air Force brat, she grew up in Puerto Rico, Ohio, Alabama, Germany and Maryland. She has an aunt who is an immigration lawyer as well as an uncle who is an immigration judge.

"It's been in the family a long time," she said of her interest in people from other places.

Since graduating from the University of Maryland in 2000 with degrees in government and communications, Rodriguez has been working in the city's Office of Human Rights, which oversees implementation of the new law.

Rodriguez has spent much of her time working with the eight agencies in the first group required to comply with the law. They include the police department, public schools, fire and emergency services and several health and human services agencies. All agencies must be in compliance by October 2006.

The eight agencies have completed assessments of their efforts and named language-access coordinators. Vital documents for the agencies have all been translated into at least five languages, Rodriguez said.

One of her challenges going forward will be to create standard practices for agencies that have very different missions, she said. An even bigger issue is to come up with the money for implementing those practices.

"Resources is a huge challenge," she said. The new law came with a $300,000 budget in its first year, enough to hire Rodriguez and an assistant and translate some documents. Agencies must shoulder most of the expense for additional staff or programs.

Denise Gilman of the Language Access Coalition, an alliance of pro-immigrant groups that pressed for the new law, said members initially were concerned about Rodriguez's limited experience in government.

"However, I have to say that we have really been pleased and pleasantly surprised by the vigor with which she has taken on this role. She has really just jumped in there and organized the process and pushed agencies to the limit," said Gilman, who works for the Washington Lawyers Committee.

Eugenio Arene, another member of the coalition, agreed that Rodriguez has been effective.

"My impression is that she has passion and willingness to have a strong coalition" with community groups, he said. "I am not concerned about her that much, but about the political will from the city administrators on down" to hire more Latinos and ensure compliance with the law, said Arene, executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies.

Rodriguez tries to compensate for her youth with energy. Asked about her hobbies, she acknowledged that she is a workaholic. "My hobby is to ensure this program goes in the right direction," she said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company