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How does Social Security help people with limited English proficiency?

U.S. government agencies develop and maintain systems to ensure that people with limited English proficiency, abbreviated as LEP, have “meaningful access” to services. The Social Security Administration (SSA) does this in a number of ways:

SSA provides written publications on core topics such as retirement and disability benefits, Social Security numbers and cards, earnings rules, and Medicare in 12 other languages — Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese — as well as an informational video in American Sign Language.

Social Security provides an interpreter at no charge to anyone who requests or shows a need for language assistance. The interpreter might be an SSA employee — many offices have bilingual or multilingual staff members available to serve in that role — or an outside contractor.

Social Security claims by language

Here are the 10 top language preferences other than English for people filing Social Security benefit claims, including disability, in the 2019 federal fiscal year. For reference, people whose primary language is English filed about 8.3 million claims.

  1. Spanish: 348,965
  2. Chinese-Mandarin: 21,322
  3. Chinese-Cantonese: 19,635
  4. Vietnamese: 18,241
  5. Korean: 14,494
  6. Russian: 8,993
  7. Polish: 6,814
  8. Japanese: 6,230
  9. Arabic: 5,809
  10. Creole-Haitian: 5,454

Source: Social Security Administration

Customers with limited English proficiency also can use a family member, friend or other person of their choosing as long as the person is at least 18 years old and meets Social Security's criteria for a qualified interpreter. This means the potential interpreter must:

  • Be fluent in English and the other language
  • Be familiar with basic Social Security terminology
  • Agree to comply with the agency's disclosure and confidentiality rules
  • Agree to accurately relay both sides of the conversation and not assume or infer facts the customer does not provide
  • Have no stake in the outcome of the customer's Social Security business that could present a conflict of interest

Social Security also works with outside companies to provide interpreter services in more than 150 languages and dialects for callers to its customer-service line, 800-772-1213. For service in Spanish, press 7. For other languages, wait through the automated English voice prompts for a live representative, who can contact an interpreter.

If you have difficulty receiving services because of a language barrier, contact Social Security's regional communications director for your state.

Keep in mind

  • You can access materials for people with limited or no English skills from anywhere on the Social Security website. Look for the word “languages” or the globe icon at the top of the page.

Published July 28, 2020

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