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SEATTLE — Mireya Barrera didn’t want a fight.

For years, she sat through meetings with her son’s special education teachers, struggling to maintain a smile as she understood little of what they said. On the rare occasions when other teachers who spoke Barrera’s language, Spanish, were asked to help, the conversations still faltered because they weren’t trained interpreters.

But by the time her son, Ian, entered high school, Barrera decided to invite a bilingual volunteer from a local nonprofit to sit with her and to remind the school team of her rights.

“I wanted someone on my side,” Barrera, whose son has autism, said through an interpreter. “All this time, they weren’t making things easy for us. It’s caused a lot of tears.”

Mireya Barrera, left, spent years struggling to understand her son Ian’s teachers in special education meetings without a Spanish interpreter. Husband Enrique Barrera, right, often tried to help with interpretation, which federal laws require schools to provide. Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

Regardless of what language parents speak at home, they have a civil right to receive important information from their child’s educators in a language they understand. For students with disabilities, federal law is even more clear: Schools “must take whatever action is necessary” — including arranging for interpretation and translation — so parents can meaningfully participate in their kid’s education. 

But schools throughout the country sometimes fail to provide those services.

Families who don’t speak English are forced to muddle through meetings about their children’s progress, unable to weigh in or ask educators how they can help. Cultural and linguistic differences can convince some parents not to question what’s happening at school — a power imbalance that, advocates say, means some children miss out on critical support. In a pinch, it’s not uncommon for schools to task bilingual students with providing interpretation for their families, placing them in the position of describing their own shortcomings to their parents and guardians.

“That’s totally inappropriate, in every possible way — and unrealistic,” said Diane Smith-Howard, senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network. “If the child is not doing particularly well in an academic subject, why would you trust your teenager to tell you?”

“Parents for whom English might not be their primary language are often overwhelmed with information and unable to participate meaningfully in the process.”

Jinju Park, senior education ombuds, Washington State 

School districts blame a lack of resources. They say they don’t have the money to hire more interpreters or contract with language service agencies, and that even if they did, there aren’t enough qualified interpreters to do the job.

In Washington and a handful of other states, the issue has started to gain more attention. State lawmakers in Olympia earlier this year introduced bipartisan legislation to bolster federal civil rights in state code. Teachers unions in Seattle and Chicago recently bargained for — and won — interpretation services during special education meetings. And school districts face an escalating threat of parent lawsuits, or even federal investigation, if they don’t take language access seriously.

Still, efforts to expand language access in special education face an uphill battle, due to the small pool of trained interpreters, lack of enforcement at the state level and scant funding from Congress. (Despite promising in 1974 to cover nearly half the extra cost for schools to provide special education, the federal government has never done so.) Washington’s bipartisan bill to add more protections for families suddenly failed, after state lawmakers stripped it of key provisions and advocates pulled their support.

The special education system can be “incredibly difficult for everybody,” said Ramona Hattendorf, director of advocacy for the Arc of King County, which promotes disability rights. “Then everything is exacerbated when you bring language into the mix.”

Related: Special education’s hidden racial gap

Nationwide, roughly 1 in 10 students who qualify for special education also identify as English learners, according to federal education data, and that share is growing. About 791,000 English learners participated in special education in 2020, a jump of nearly 30 percent since 2012. In more than a dozen states, including Washington, the increase was even higher.

As their numbers grow, their parents’ frustration with language services is rising too.

During the 2021-22 school year, the Washington State education ombudsman received nearly 1,200 complaints from parents about schools. Their number one concern, across all racial and demographic groups, was access and inclusion in special education. Senior education ombuds Jinju Park estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of calls the agency receives are about special education — and 80 percent of those calls are from clients who need interpretation services.

While most states allow schools up to 60 days once a student is referred for special education services to determine if they qualify, Washington schools can take up to half a school year. And if a parent needs interpretation or translation, the wait can last even longer.

Mireya Barrera embraces her son Ian’s hands. She tries to spread awareness of people with autism spectrum disorder and sometimes supports other families facing language barriers in special education. Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

“Our current laws do not support full parent participation,” Park wrote to Washington state lawmakers in support of an early version of House Bill 1305, the proposal that ultimately failed. “Parents for whom English might not be their primary language,” she added, “are often overwhelmed with information and unable to participate meaningfully in the process.”

Barrera, whose son attended the Auburn School District, south of Seattle, said she often felt cut out of his learning.

In kindergarten, after his diagnosis for autism, Ian’s special education team concluded he needed a paraeducator assigned to him full time, Barrera said. She relied on Google Translate and other parents to help her compose emails asking why he didn’t receive that support until the third grade. Her requests for translated copies of legal documents largely went unanswered, she said — until a principal told her that the translation was too expensive.

When Ian entered high school, bullying and his safety became Barrera’s top concern. He once came home with a chunk of hair missing, she said. Despite repeated calls and emails to his teachers, Barrera said she never received an explanation.

Barrera said that when she asked to come to the school to observe, a teacher told her, “You don’t even speak English. What’s the point?’ ”

“That’s totally inappropriate, in every possible way – and unrealistic. If the child is not doing particularly well in an academic subject, why would you trust your teenager to tell you?”

Diane Smith-Howard, senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network

Vicki Alonzo, a spokesperson for the Auburn district, said that the region’s booming immigrant population in recent years has prompted the district to commit more resources toward helping families whose first language isn’t English. Nearly a third of its students are multilingual learners, she said, and they speak about 85 different languages at home. 

In the 2019-20 year, the district spent about $175,000 on interpretation and translation services, she said; last school year, that figure was more than $450,000.

Alonzo noted the district received no additional funding for those services, which included about 1,500 meetings with interpreters and translation of more than 3,000 pages of documents.

“Families are our partners,” she said. “We need them to have student success.”

Related: Students with disabilities often left out of popular ‘dual language’ programs

Lawmakers in other states have tried to address language access issues.

Proposed legislation in California would set a 30-day deadline for schools to comply with parents’ requests for a translated copy of their child’s individualized education program, or IEP, which details the services a school will provide for a student with disabilities. Similarly, lawmakers in Texas introduced a bill earlier this year to expand translation of IEPs if English is not the native language of the child’s parent (the bill died in committee).

“It’s a nationwide phenomenon,” said Smith-Howard of the National Disability Rights Network. “It’s a resource problem and also a matter of respect and dignity and understanding — that all parents should receive.”

In New York City, parents turned to the courts in pursuit of a solution.

Mireya Barrera wears a puzzle piece necklace, which matches a tattoo on her wrist, to spread awareness of people with autism spectrum disorder. Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

Four families there filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2019, claiming the nation’s largest school district failed to provide translation services for families that don’t speak English. Like Barrera, one of the New York City parents asked for a Spanish interpreter at an IEP meeting; their school provided one who spoke Italian, according to M’Ral Broodie-Stewart, an attorney representing the families for Staten Island Legal Services.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into New Bedford Public Schools in Massachusetts after students and families who speak K’iché, an Indigenous Mayan language, complained about discriminatory practices. 

A settlement reached last year commits the Massachusetts district to using professionally trained interpreters — and not students, relatives or Google Translate — to communicate essential information to parents.

Related: Is the pandemic our chance to reimagine special education?

Teachers are frustrated too.

In Washington state’s largest school district, the Seattle teachers union picketed and delayed the start of school last year over demands that included interpretation and translation in special education. The eventual contract, which lasts through 2025, requires that staff have access to various services that provide telephonic (a live interpreter) or text-based translation (for written documents). The provision was to ensure that bilingual staff weren’t being asked to translate if it wasn’t a part of their job description.

Teachers say these tools have been helpful, but only to a degree: There are rarely telephone interpreters available for less common languages, such as Amharic, and technical issues like dropped calls are common. 

The availability of interpreters is “not as consistent as we would like it to be,” said Ibi Holiday, a special-education teacher at Rising Star Elementary School in Seattle.

There’s also an issue of context. Translators may not have a background in special education, so families may come away from a meeting not understanding all the options. This can slow down the process significantly. 

Mireya Barrera, middle, walks her son Ian to University of Washington fraternity home where volunteers help to support younger students with disabilities. Ian, now 18, was diagnosed with autism in preschool. Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times

“For a lot of the families, they attended a school in their country that functions completely differently,” said Mari Rico, director of El Centro de la Raza’s Jose Marti Child Development Center, a bilingual early education program. “Translating wasn’t enough; I had to teach them about the system.”  

Many Seattle district schools have multilingual staff, but the number and diversity of languages spoken isn’t consistent, Rico said. And there is a greater risk of a student’s case getting overlooked or stagnating because of language barriers. She said she’s had to step in where families have gone months without an IEP meeting even as their child was receiving services.

Hattendorf, with the Arc of King County, said that cheaper tech solutions like those Seattle is using do offer some assistance, but their quality varies widely. And the services may not offer parents enough time to process complicated information and ask follow-up questions, she said.

South of Seattle, the Barreras decided to move Ian to a different high school.

He graduated earlier this year, but federal law guarantees his special education services for another three years. Ian is now attending a transition program for students with disabilities, where he will learn life skills like getting a job.

“We know, with help, he can do whatever he wants,” Barrera said. 

Already, she added, “it’s all different. The teachers just try to find the best way to communicate with me.”

This story about interpretation services was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Seattle Times.

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