What Is It Like to Access Services as a Non-English Speaker?
Recently, with the help of the staff at Austin Public Health, I embarked on a journey to document the challenges of accessing services in the city of Austin as a limited-proficiency English speaker. I called over 25 government agencies and non-profit organizations in the Austin area and played a role of a Vietnamese speaker with extremely limited English proficiency. Below is a summary of three of the many calls I documented.
I called Lifeworks Counseling and spoke Vietnamese to the staff. Once hearing a foreign language, the staff immediate hang up, without trying understand the situation. I called back immediately and no one picked up. I also called CommUnity Care, a safety net clinic widely used by many low income individuals. I had to navigate the phone tree completely in English. Were I truly a non-English speaker, I would be completely lost by the endless options on the automated phone tree. Once I reached a staff and requested an interpreter, I was put on hold. The hold period was so long that the call ended automatically. I also called the Integral Care hotline, one of the major mental health institutions in the city. I called three separate times and although I was connected to an interpreter, I was not able to reach an Integral Care staff. During one of the calls, I had to wait 15 minutes before deciding to hang up.
These instances only illustrate a tiny portion of the challenges encountered by non-English speakers every day. As our city becomes more diverse every day, it is time for us to reconsider our initiatives and resources so that they can benefit those who need it the most. It is also time to hold institutions accountable and show them the quality of service they are providing to vulnerable groups versus the quality of service they had promised.