Originally printed in the Indianapolis Business Journal on May 15, 2020
As we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, no individual or community, regardless of origin or background, is immune. Coronavirus does not discriminate as it passes through our diversifying population, and those who are working to halt its trajectory should not either.
Discrimination can happen easily. In the rush to pass along critical communication, multilingual Hoosiers might not be top of mind. A press event happens without an American Sign Language interpreter. A health and safety alert is issued only in English. A confidential human resource issue is discussed without an interpreter. Taking the extra step to provide multilingual access to information and services is too often overlooked.
The need is clear. Indiana is truly diverse. More than 100 languages are used within our state and at least 13.5% of Marion County residents use a language other than English at home. At least 10% of the U.S. population is Deaf or hard of hearing, with an even higher percentage residing right here in Indiana.
During a crisis, we cannot include only English speakers, especially when we require participation by the entire community. We must provide as many people as possible access to health and safety information in their primary language. Failure to do so threatens the health of every one of us.
In fact, these populations face an increased risk to COVID-19 as many exist in concentrated social circles and live in multigenerational housing. To contain the spread and best prepare for the difficult months that lie ahead, we must communicate proactively with all our neighbors in Indiana—our Burmese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Latino, Deaf, hard of hearing and other multilingual neighbors. A community-wide public health effort is effective only if the entire community is included.
It’s easier to overcome these obstacles than we think. Businesses, not-for-profits, government agencies, hospitals, schools and churches can easily and cost-effectively provide multilingual messaging during these unprecedented times.
Organizations such as the Indiana American Red Cross and Project Lead the Way, businesses such as Walmart and Geodis, and Gov. Eric Holcomb himself are leaders in language inclusion efforts. If a message affects health, safety, education, employment, access to food, or housing, it should be translated.
There are numerous services available locally and nationally that provide translations, as well as virtual and on-site interpreters in a matter of minutes. With inclusion and safety at top of mind, projects should be adjusted to include these priorities.
Our communities will continue to evolve and diversify. Changes within our businesses and organizations to ensure inclusivity shouldn’t stop at initial emergency messaging—we need to consider what comes next. It is integral that, as a community, we continue to provide language services and support to multilingual communities as part of the new norm of everyday communications.
This is a matter of concern not just now but for the future. It is a time to think of the collective. Our success in doing so supports the governor’s orders to be #INthistogether. No one can prepare for something as life-altering as the situation in which we find ourselves, but if we can help alleviate the language barriers, we can make lasting improvements in our day-to-day communications.
Marina Hadjioannou Waters is the President and co-owner of LUNA Language Services an Indianapolis based company providing the community with language access.