BOSTON (SHNS) – Multiple botched translations exacerbated by glitchy virtual meeting technology cast an ironic twist Monday during a committee hearing that featured nearly two hours of testimony in support of legislation that would strengthen interpreter services at schools.
Rep. Denise Garlick, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Education, had asked in English for a Spanish-speaking woman to testify one to two paragraphs a time and then allow for an interpreter to talk in real-time. But the woman ended up speaking continuously for several minutes, as lawmakers struggled to understand her remarks amid “difficulty” accessing the Spanish interpreter, Garlick said.
A Portuguese interpreter who said she understood Spanish ended up summarizing the testimony of the woman — a mother of a child with special education needs pushing for professional interpreters who adhere to a code of ethics and confidentiality.
Representatives from Massachusetts Advocates for Children told the News Service the translation method seemed to contradict the purpose of bills filed by Rep. Antonio Cabral and Sen. Brendan Crighton (H 437 / S 253) that would direct education officials to expand access to qualified school interpreters, including by standardizing a mechanism to train and assess people’s language capabilities. Interpretations should occur consecutively or simultaneously and be spoken in the first-person, unlike the summaries offered at the hearing, the representatives said.
Garlick, who said she cannot speak Spanish, said at the hybrid hearing that she is a mother of a young adult with special education needs and developmental disabilities.
“I would never want anyone to summarize my thoughts and my feelings in an important meeting,” Garlick, a Needham Democrat, said. “This experience certainly speaks to me as a new chair of this education committee on the importance of this bill.”
An aide to Garlick said the committee is newly using interpreter services beyond ASL and captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Vietnamese interpreters were slated to be available Monday.
But the aide said he didn’t know specific details of the hearing’s translation issues, including whether the Spanish-speaking woman had logged into the wrong language feed on Teams or if the Spanish interpreter was not online.
“The importance of being able to hear the thoughts, the issues and the concerns of people in any language is vital to our work in the State House,” Garlick told the News Service during a break in the hearing.
The bills outline different tiers of interpreters, including Tier 3 individuals who must understand terms related to special education and be used in all “specialized meetings,” such as discussions about an Individualized Education Program, Individual 504 plans, safety plans or behavioral intervention plans, bullying, school discipline, and placement in English Learner Education program.
Tier 1 interpreters don’t need to be formally assessed for language proficiency, unlike Tier 2 interpreters who can be used for standard meetings, such as a parent conference, community meeting or other school gathering that doesn’t have “legal context,” according to the legislation.
While there are federal and state requirements in place for interpreters in Massachusetts educational settings, students and parents still contend with massive language barriers, advocates said.
Iman Hassan, an attorney at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said she constantly works with families who are unable to participate in their children’s “educational life” as a result of ineffective interpretation, like school staffers who are used as interpreters at the last minute in special education team meetings and make “glaring errors.”
“I’ve also seen untrained interpreters give their own opinions and try to advise parents what to do, sometimes with the best intentions but yet leading to consequences that are unfortunately incredibly inappropriate,” Hassan testified.
Brian Bermudez, staff attorney at the Mental Health Advocacy Program for Kids, called language access a “pervasive” barrier in immigrant communities. Bermudez recalled a client and her 13-year-old daughter who lacked English proficiency.
The daughter started harming herself and became depressed. She refused to attend school, missed out on her education and couldn’t find tutors in her native language, Bermudez said at the hearing.
“Her lack of English proficiency meant that she couldn’t learn in class. She couldn’t form relationships with teachers or adults,” Bermudez testified. “She couldn’t access the same education her peers were accessing.”