INCLUDEnyc Voices

It’s Mandarin to Me: When IEPs are not translated into a parent’s native language

The other day I came upon an IEP written in Mandarin and I was struck with a feeling of helplessness because I could not understand a single word. An IEP, for those of you who may not know, is an Individualized Education Program that students with disabilities receive when they need any level of special education. These are very student-specific documents that lay out not only a student’s strengths and weaknesses but also goals to tackle their needs and a set of services to help them succeed to the best of their abilities. In other words, it is a vital document for the successful development of a child with any level of disability.

Looking at this IEP in Mandarin was truly humbling and enlightening at the same time. It was gibberish to me, even though I want to learn this language one day. I have seen many IEPs written in English and some (painfully few) in Spanish, my native language, but I had never stopped to look closely at one written in a language that I truly do not understand. This was only a template (with no student content) but it made me realize how daunting it would be if I had raised my 21-year-old son, who had an IEP throughout his academic career, in China or another country where I was not able to read the local language.

Parents and guardians in New York City who do not understand English are entitled to a translated IEP, but more often than not, they are not able to get this document translated. Why is that? From what I have been able to ascertain, it is not due to ill will or incompetence (although that may exist in some pockets) but mostly due to a lack of resources. Schools are responsible for these translations but they either have to use the scant funds that are allocated for this purpose or use in-house resources such as staff and/or parent volunteers. The problem with the latter is that more often than not, these people are not trained translators and may not be familiar with the jargon and the thought process behind the content of an IEP. And I have not even mentioned that this is a legal document. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the IEP is a legal and binding document to which parents and students have a right. But what good is this right if one cannot understand the content or if the content is translated incorrectly?

I want to make one thing clear, there is a lot of good will and good intention within our school system and administration. Educators, psychologists, administrators, and others working with students who need special education services often strive to do their best but are constrained by their resources. I work for an organization that gives information and guidance not only to parents and guardians of students with disabilities but also to these hard-working professionals who truly want to help and guide their students.

Translation, and especially good translation of technical documents as is the case here, is very expensive. Translators have to ensure that they not only correctly translate the meaning of the words but also the sentiment behind it. These documents are filled with personal details about students and become a type of short story about them. Thus the translator has to tackle both the technical and literary elements of this child’s story.

As I am writing this, I realize that I sound like one of those people who complain but have no answers or ideas on how to solve a problem. Those people usually end up being part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So I started giving it a little more thought. What could we do to improve this situation?

The Department of Education’s Translation and Interpreting Unit (T&I Unit) has already taken steps to ameliorate the situation by translating the IEP template into 9 official languages under their mandate and are working on adding more. They are responsible for the template written in Mandarin that confounded me at the beginning of this story, and I truly commend them for taking this step. The T&I Unit translates all the notices and general information that are sent to all families, but are not able to tackle family specific documents due to a lack of resources.

We could advocate for more resources and I definitely think we should but the monetary burden of translating every student’s entire IEP would be prohibitively high at this point in time without making serious budgetary changes. If we did get additional funds, however, we could arrange for the translation of one or more key sections. Many New York City IEPs these days include a neat little summary at the end. At the very least, could we start translating that section for the parents?

Another thought is that, just as the T&I Unit has translated the template into various languages, maybe they could start by translating certain common phrases, technical terms, set of services, and such into the same languages. We could start by focusing on the section of the IEP that outlines the services a student gets and have set translations for common services and accommodations so that a translator does not have to spend as much time and effort.  

It is obvious to me that we need to invest more money into this problem. But it is equally obvious that many of us professionals, parents, and advocates could get together and think of additional solutions that may not be as financially onerous, such as possibly those suggested in the previous paragraphs. My call to any takers is, let’s join forces. Let’s work together to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

- Diana Biagiolii