Parents of students with disabilities who don’t speak English have long struggled to get their children’s learning plans translated into their native language, a crucial barrier to advocating for extra help or ensuring they are receiving the correct services.
Officials are now taking more significant steps to address the issue. Last school year, the education department quietly launched a citywide effort to centrally translate students’ individualized education programs (or IEPs) instead of leaving the process up to individual schools that didn’t always have the capacity to conduct the translations or find an outside vendor to provide it.
The citywide program, which scaled up a small pilot program announced two years ago, will be permanent, officials recently said.
IEPs are essential documents that spell out a student’s individual goals and the services they’re entitled to receive, such as speech or occupational therapy or a smaller class size with specialized instruction. Without translated versions, families may struggle to know whether their children are getting the services they’re entitled to and effectively advocate on their behalf.
But even as advocates said the centralized process is a step in the right direction, the burden is still on families to request that the documents be translated, and families may not know they can request a translation. For now, there is a large gap between the number of families who may need translated IEPs and the requests.
About 78,000 students with disabilities live in homes where English is not the primary language, according to city officials. Last school year, 7,078 IEPs were translated, the first year the centralized translation process was available citywide.
About 1,100 IEPs have been translated so far this school year, a 70% uptick compared with the same period last year, officials said.
It is unclear to what extent the pandemic may have curtailed families’ requests for translated IEPs or how those figures stack up historically, since the education department did not track how many IEPs were translated by individual schools before the process was centralized.
Nevertheless, advocates said the new translation process represents progress.
“It’s way overdue,” said Lori Podvesker, a policy expert at INCLUDEnyc, an advocacy group that focuses on special education. “If special ed documents are not translated that prevents families from being a part of the decision-making, and that equates to inferior outcomes.”
Relying on schools to translate IEPs resulted in a patchwork system. Individual schools may not have anyone on hand to translate the documents or may struggle to find a translator who can provide high-quality translation of documents that often include jargon and other technical language.
Department officials have argued that centralizing the process would create a more streamlined process and lead to better translations, since the city could use translators with more practice reviewing the highly technical documents and reuse boilerplate language for certain parts, freeing them up to focus on sections that are unique to each student. (The city is using an outside company, Lingualinx, to conduct the translations.)
Paola Jordan, who co-directs Sinergia, an organization that helps Spanish-speaking families navigate special education services, said many families — and even schools themselves — may not know they can request translations.
“I am still seeing Spanish-speaking parents who have [IEPs] in English,” Jordan wrote in an email. “The burden still is on the parent to request the service.” She also raised concerns that families may have to wait several weeks for the documents to be translated.
Education department officials did not immediately indicate how long translations typically take, saying only that they are completed as soon as possible. Nor did they respond to a question about why the city won’t automatically translate IEPs for families who primarily speak other languages.
They did, however, say they are working to get the word out through letters, text messages, and advertisements to “promote the availability of language access services.”
Families who want to request an IEP translation can contact their school, call 718-935-2013, or visit the department’s website.