Meaningful access to the Social Security Administration requires language services | Opinion

A lack of interpreters cuts too many people off from the crucial services they need

Speaker device in various languages.

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(*Editor’s Note: This commentary is the second of a series of three dealing with challenges facing disabled Pennsylvanians navigating the Social Security system.)

By Kara Friesen

“Mariia” is a 32-year-old woman with a severe intellectual disability. She has no source of income and needs to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). With the help of a family member, she calls the Social Security Administration (SSA) to start the SSI application process. She is equipped with a letter from her doctor detailing her disability and how it restricts her ability to work.

She’s compiled years of medical documents supporting this assessment. After waiting on hold for nearly 45 minutes, an SSA representative finally answers and the woman speaks up to request a Ukrainian interpreter, which she needs in order to fully participate in the call. But the only response is a “click” as the call is abruptly ended. 

Reaching an SSA representative by phone can be difficult. It requires patience to navigate automated systems and wait through long hold times. This difficulty is magnified for callers who are not fluent in English, are deaf, or are hard of hearing, and therefore require interpretation. SSA is supposed to provide free in-person or telephonic interpretation to help individuals complete their interactions and obtain critical services.

Unfortunately, in practice, this policy is not always the reality.

For years, people with limited English proficiency have struggled to gain meaningful access to the services and benefits provided by SSA. Calls are dropped as representatives attempt to connect to an interpreter. Letters with important benefits information are only provided in complex, technical English.

This lack of appropriate language access results in SSI beneficiaries being unable to comply with complicated reporting requirements, thereby placing them at risk of not obtaining, or of losing, life-sustaining income.

When SSA fails to provide appropriate language assistance, SSA inadvertently forces people to rely on family or friends to serve as interpreters, but using untrained loved ones as interpreters can be problematic. Conversations with SSA often involve complex language that can be confusing even for a fluent English speaker.

Family and friends may lack adequate knowledge of medical terminology or may become uncomfortable with the sensitive nature of the conversation. 

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While SSA makes provisions for applicants to use their own “qualified interpreter,” there has been no evidence of staff taking steps to determine whether the applicant-provided interpreter is indeed qualified. To ensure accuracy of the information collected, professional interpretation and translation are necessary.

Earlier this year, SSA released an Equity Action Plan to advance equity and to address the systemic barriers that prevent participation in its programs.

However, the plan does not identify any strategies for fostering an equitable, inclusive, and accessible environment for those who require interpretation and translation. In fact, the plan itself does not propose any solutions to address barriers to language access – thereby overlooking many communities that require essential SSA services.

Lack of appropriate language services is not the only barrier preventing eligible individuals from rightfully accessing benefits. Confusion surrounding qualifying immigration statuses can also be a tremendous hurdle.

When “Mariia” finally reached an SSA representative who successfully connected to an interpreter, she was quickly informed that her SSI application would be denied due to her immigration status as a Ukrainian Humanitarian Parolee (UHP). The denial was incorrect and unjust.

UHP status holders do qualify for SSI and SSA has issued public bulletins recognizing this fact.  The SSA employee’s decision in Mariia’s case clearly demonstrates a lack of agency training on issues about immigrant eligibility for benefits. Unfortunately, Mariia’s experience is not an isolated incident.

There have been cases of SSI applications being in process for more than a year, delayed simply because agency staff did not understand which immigration statuses are a basis for eligibility.

These delays and denials have serious implications. Immigrants with disabilities who have fled war and trauma, often arrive to Philadelphia with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They require these life-sustaining Social Security disability benefits to help pay for basic needs and to start rebuilding their lives. The SSA Equity Plan fails to propose any steps to ensure that agency staff understand which immigration statuses are a basis for benefit eligibility. Without such plan, vulnerable immigrants will continue to be denied timely access to essential benefits and services.  

Local immigrant and refugee service providers and disability rights organizations have identified several practical solutions that would increase access to SSA for individuals who have limited English proficiency or who rely upon American Sign Language to communicate.

We call upon SSA to increase language access services for both verbal and written communication. SSA staff must be adequately trained on how to effectively access and work with interpreters.

For telephone calls or in-person appointments, SSA should make it easier for their staff to obtain interpreters for all languages (including providing more than one vendor for telephonic interpretation to minimize wait times). In local SSA offices, information about deaf interpreter services should be posted on signage.

Additionally, disability forms and notices should be made available in languages other than English and should be written in plain language, so that individuals can better understand and comply with requirements.  Staff should also be properly trained on qualifying immigration statuses thus ensuring more equitable services to immigrant communities.

People with limited English proficiency, or who are deaf, or hard of hearing have a right to meaningfully access benefits. Each of these recommendations aims to remove barriers to services, thus increasing the ability of people with disabilities to advocate for themselves and obtain life-changing benefits. 

Kara Friesen is the INSPIRE Manager at Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. The INSPIRE program assists refugees and immigrants to secure Supplemental Security Income benefits and advocates for equitable access to these critical services.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.