Is Language Access the Best Phrase? Should We Start Talking About Language Participation?

There’s rightly lots of attention to language access these days.  Triggered in part, of course, by the DOJ letter to the state courts.

A genuinely modest proposal:  Lets think about talking about language participation rather than language access.

“Participation” is a much more equal word than access.  “Access” suggests an outsider being allowed in — at least in part. “Participation” suggests making sure that a member of a community is allowed to be fully part of that community.  “Access” appeals to the intellectual structure of disability, while “participation” suggests equality and contribution.

In short, “participation” is about being part of the system, and being needed to get all the information needed for the right decision.

I realize that “access” may more accurately reflect the language of the governing Executive Order (which talks generally in terms of “access to services.”  But maybe that’s the difference between most institutions like a hospital and courts — that a hospital or indeed a school provides services. whereas a court provides justice in the making of which all should participate.

But no.  Actually we all participate in shaping our health and our education, as well as justice — of those around us as well as ourselves.  So maybe participation, a word that suggests that, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, we do not have a human recourse to waste, is a better word all round.

Anyway, even if legal categories sometimes restrict thought (really?) lets try to think about this in humanely broad terms.  And, maybe we need to think too about participation in justice, rather than access to justice.

P.S. One language access advocate, shown a draft of this post, worried that abandoning the word “access” would de-link the concept from its civil rights roots and goals.  I hope it is obvious that that is not the intent — any more than talking about diversity should be seen as undermining goals of rights to racial and ethnic equality.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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2 Responses to Is Language Access the Best Phrase? Should We Start Talking About Language Participation?

  1. Pingback: A Way to Move Forward on Language Access — Create a Laboratory Language Access Court | Richard Zorza's Access to Justice Blog

  2. Kate Bladow says:

    Richard – It looks like the DOJ is not the only government department concerned about knocking down language barriers. The OMB just released guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Perhaps this is an opportunity for legal aid advocates to work with the government to make certain a plain writing style is adopted this time.

    Also, Fresh Air had a great segment yesterday on access to justice, the criminal courts, and the brain. A scientist said,

    Currently in the legal system there’s this myth of equality. And the assumption is if you are over 18 and you have an IQ of over 70 then all brains are created equal. And, of course, that’s a very charitable idea but it’s demonstrably false. Brains are extraordinarily different from one another. Brains are essentially like fingerprints; we’ve all got them but they’re somewhat different. And so by imagining that everyone has the exact same capacity for decision-making, for understanding future consequences, for squelching their impulsive behavior and so on, what we’re doing is were imagining that everybody should be treated the same. And, of course, what has happened is that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system. Estimates are that about 30 percent of the prison population has some sort of mental illness.

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