Access to emergency services for CALD communities in Australia

Disasters and critical incidents occur across Australia on a daily basis; no one is immune. Our crisis services are among the best in the world but since we speak over 300 languages here, ensuring equal access for speakers of languages other than English is by far the biggest challenge we face. I’m sure we all agree that accessible services are a fundamental human right and we do want to do the right thing. In practice, however, many services providers find working with members of an increasingly diverse society difficult. Nearly 16% of our population speak a language other than English at home and communicating with such a diverse group of people requires specialist knowledge, persistence and appropriate resources. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 67% of the Australian population were born in Australia but nearly half of Australians had either been born overseas or one or both parents had been born overseas. In 2016, there were over 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes. More than one-fifth (21%) of Australians spoke a language other than English at home. After English, the next most common languages spoken at home were Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.

Solutions to communication barriers include translated materials, interpreters (including video and phone), the use of bilingual staff members and more recently the use of mobile computer technology. Each method carries a specific set of advantages and disadvantages. Although professional interpreters offer improved communication, better outcomes and overall cost savings, they are underutilised due to their frequently limited availability and cost but also perceived inefficiency. Translations can be expensive and quickly become out of date, so the challenge here is to ensure that the information is aimed at the right communities and are updated regularly. Ultimately, the solution will vary for every provider depending on the population served and available resources. Accessibility of the multiple options outlined above and solid support and commitment from organisations are necessary to provide proper crisis response. It includes availability of appropriately qualified interpreters during emergencies but it also involves the dissemination of information and educational materials to our Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities in a strategic and sustained way.

Non-English speakers’ access to emergency services in Australia rarely makes the news. Generally speaking, people don’t like to complain and manage on their own or ask friends and family members to help. But when it does, it shocks us and elicits all kinds of responses, many of them compassionate but also those that state that CALD community members should just learn English. If only it was that easy! Persons who do not speak English well in Australia are a long way from equal and one of the few but widely publicised cases include an Afghan woman who tried to call the police but could not make herself understood and did not receive any assistance a few days before she was murdered by her husband. Previously, the victim had also spoken to a family violence officer and a health worker about her abusive husband but seems to have been failed by those that should have helped. In many instances, members of CALD communities under-utilize services, are not aware of the full range of service options available and do not understand the process of seeking assistance. They also do not have their needs identified and understood or addressed by service providers.

Of course the cost of providing translating and interpreting services is just one of the challenges organisations in Australia face. Others include ensuring the right languages are selected, the right information is disseminated to the right communities, literacy and educational levels are considered, and translations are managed within a quality framework. One other, major issue, is that many organisations do not budget and do not plan for translation so whenever a need for language services becomes apparent, the project gets assigned to whoever happens to be bi-lingual and vaguely experienced in CALD issues in the organisation. Service providers should be encouraged to have a CALD communication strategy in place and, as part of it, should develop a relationship with a trusted language services provider who can guide and advise them on which languages to choose, which communities are most in need and how to best present the information to them. There is much confusion about how good the on-line translation software is and whilst it serves the purpose of providing a basic communication tool, it cannot be relied on for accurate translation, and especially not when lives are at stake. Some research even suggests that it’s better not to provide any translation at all, than to provide poor translation. Apart from everything else, it is disrespectful to address your audience in Chinglish, Frenchlish or Spanglish!

In Australia, interpreters are accredited with the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) and provide independent, impartial, confidential and accurate interpreting for both parties. Evidence suggests that optimal communication, user satisfaction, and outcomes and fewer errors occur when CALD community members have access to qualified professional interpreters or bilingual workers. There are approximately 6000 interpreters Australia-wide with many years of experience in the community sector.