Equal access — to information, services, care, economic opportunities and mobility– was of greatest concern to those groups who had Limited English Proficiency, including New Americans, Latinx farmworkers, and Deaf Vermont residents. Questions of equal access and access to information overlapped most heavily for Somali Bantu elder women and members of the Deaf community.
Language and information access matters
Equal access to federally funded information and services in residents’ preferred language is required under Title VI of U.S. federal law. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered routes of access for all Vermonters, especially those who depended on face-to-face contact–the ability to walk in and speak to someone in the office–of agencies that closed their doors for months, to meet needs, get services and care, acquire information, and resolve issues.
“In the month of June , I really had difficulty. I was not getting any money. I did apply for unemployment, the problem was they told me they already had sent money in my account, but I was not getting it. And I could not go and approach someone for help as I used to before Corona. It was just impossible for me. I had to pay my house loan and other expense like bills, but somehow [AALV staffer] knew I was having problems so they called to help me.“— Bhutanese Nepali participant
Equal access is necessary to access emergency, health and economic information and services. Older New Americans worried about getting infected inadvertently or intentionally infected with COVID if they went to get tested or access care. Second-generation New American young adults acted as key ambassadors to their elders on the value of protective protocols, the safety of testing and later, vaccination. Yet both generations often faced unequal access to protective gear in the workplace, where they were disproportionately essential workers in healthcare, elder care and other fields.
We need equal access provisions to understand and navigate safety, isolation, and economic hardship. People with TBI need someone to sit with them and go through complex federal disability application forms or their well-being is at risk:
“With a brain injury, you’ve got to go through all the paperwork and trying to retain it in your brain and filling that paperwork out and getting it in so that you can get housing is the issue. And having that advocate that I talked about, being able to help you get through all that.
…when you’re in the hospital, you have a case manager that comes into your room and talks to you. When you have a brain injury, you don’t have that.”– TBI survivor
We need language access to resolve disputes and receive fair and equitable treatment: AALV caseworkers spent up to 15 hours helping one client who could not access an interpreter with state government (DOL). Multiple AALV clients were being charged as much as $16,000 in funds they must return for unemployment benefits, because, for example, their preteen child did not understand which box to click on the English-only online form, or they were not able to communicate with their employer, who did not understand if they were taking sick days or quitting (see Economy).
Resource liaisons and caseworkers
Deaf community members valued Vermont Center for Independent Living’s liaison filtering and interpreting critical information, including via the Vermont Association of the Deaf Facebook page.
“I’m trying to predict… I’m trying to keep up with the news. I will say it’s been nice. The Deaf community has shared resources and information on Facebook, so we’ve supported each other with information that way. There have been interpreters interpreting updates for us. And so that’s been really helpful and kept us really aware to some extent so we can make decisions that we needed to.”– Deaf community member
New Americans depend on liaisons; TBI sufferers request them.
“I think it’s adequate, but I think there are other possibilities for folks that need different types of communication. Some people with brain injuries can’t read computer screens very well and can’t read and write after their injury. So sometimes listening is better and having to read things over and over again. So print documents are better for information so that you can go back to it rather than being on a computer screen.”– TBI survivor
Members of communities and groups facing access barriers who had strong ties to service and advocacy groups were less likely to express concern about lack of information: they had trusted sources of information and support. Members of advocacy groups were also much more likely to share understanding of issues in terms of community realities, and to express their concerns in terms of structural inequality rather than individual frustrations.
“You have to have good information, that’s the best. With good information, you can go to the right person, to the right organization. So being well informed, being well educated, for me that’s really important… Accessible for everybody, for all the socioeconomic levels. For everybody.“– Farmworker
Paying people for their time closed the participation gap and gave us access to underserved individuals experiencing financial stress. Some people needed an extra half hour to sign on to the call or had to drive to a place where they had cellular service. Compensating them both valued their meaningful participation and defrayed the cost of participation, which can otherwise be insurmountable for some.
Even though this is not currently common practice in government, most state boards and commissions receive per diem payments and the Vermont Legislature has formed a Social Equity Caucus Advisory Council where advisors will be paid for attending meetings, so precedent is building.
Summary compiled by: Dr. Susannah McCandless, Center for Whole Communities REJOICE 2021