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Ignored NYC translation law has Covid-19 negative impacts

Four years after the City Council passed a law boosting the number of languages government documents must be translated to, many frequently used forms — including COVID materials — aren’t getting the required treatment, according to some watchdog groups.

New Yorkers speak more than 200 languages, and roughly one in four has limited proficiency in English, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The Covid-19 pandemic and constantly-evolving related human needs have exacerbated the deficiencies in providing proper translations and interpretations for the public.

The city’s language access law mandates the translation of “commonly distributed documents” into the top 10 most-spoken languages in New York City other than English. That list, which includes Spanish, Korean, Bengali, Russian, Haitian Creole and Chinese, expanded in 2017 to add Arabic, Urdu, French and Polish.

When the law went into effect, the Mayor’s Office estimated more than 86% of New Yorkers with limited English proficiency would benefit.

Yet information sheets and other documents distributed by city agencies are often available in English alone, and occasionally also in Spanish and Chinese, say those who rely on them to inform clients about programs and services.

The need for more language support stood out during the rush earlier this year to schedule and complete appointments for live-saving COVID vaccines.

At city-run vaccination sites, managed by the NYC Health + Hospitals system, video interpretation is available for more than 40 languages, according to a spokesperson.

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