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Language and the law
[April 13, 2006]

Language and the law


(Orange County Register, The (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 13--Growing up in Garden Grove, Nora Preciado felt nervous whenever her parents felt sick.

That's because she had to explain their symptoms to the doctor and translate the diagnosis into Spanish.

"The fear of making a mistake was constant, way too much stress for a kid," she says.

Preciado, now an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, has begun studying language barriers to health care in Orange County.

Preciado wants to find out how the county's estimated 1,500 health-care providers are following federal and state laws that require them to provide interpreters if they receive government funding.

Interpreters don't necessarily have to be office staff. Doctors can dial up medical-translation services on the phone to communicate with patients.

In a related issue, she supports a bill pending in the state Assembly that would prohibit the use of children younger than 14 to serve as stand-in translators.

The 29-year-old graduated from Boalt Hall law school in Berkeley. Preciado discussed her project in her Anaheim office last week.

Q. Why is it important to provide interpreters in a medical setting?

A. The terms and issues are so complex in health care. It's really easy to get confused. There have been cases of wrong surgeries because the doctors and nurses couldn't communicate (with patients) in their language. Or things like taking medication the wrong way. -- You hear a lot of people saying they should learn English. Well, maybe they are but they're not fluent enough to navigate. Just like no one would question providing an interpreter for the deaf, whether they're deaf because they listened to the iPod too loud or they were born that way.

Q. Why are you interested in this issue?

A. I'm an immigrant myself. I have experienced the language barrier. I came here (from Mexico City) when I was 13 and didn't speak English.


Q. What experiences have immigrants shared with you?

A. We're doing surveys in the community. Did you ask for an interpreter?

Did you sign anything you didn't understand? A lot of people don't know they have the right to an interpreter and that's regardless of immigration status. We've encountered people not being allowed to make appointments unless they bring their own interpreter, which is wholly against the law.

Q. What was your family's experience with health care?

A. A few months after we arrived, my father had kidney stones and ended up in the emergency room at a hospital I won't name. He wasn't able to get treatment for a few hours because they were waiting for someone who spoke Spanish to come help.

Q. Many Orange County medical offices and hospitals have bilingual employees. Isn't that enough?

A. Just because they're bilingual staff, doesn't mean they're trained interpreters. You may not be able to communicate fully, when you're dealing with complicated terms.

Q. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: I realized the law is a very powerful tool and definitely one of the ways to change some of the injustices in our system. That's why I wanted to become a lawyer and use the law in a way that would benefit not just the Latino community, but the entire community that I belong to.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish?

A. I want my project to increase meaningful access to the health services and programs limited-English proficient persons are entitled to by educating them about their rights and how to go about exercising those rights.

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