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Accessibility Spotlight: Boston Tax Help Coalition

In 2016, Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a City ordinance called “Establishing Language and Communications Access for City Services.” We are excited to share with you the progress that has been made in this monthly article series. We hope you will support us in making Boston a more accessible place to live, work, and play.

On a chilly spring day in 2018, Leticia Paterlini, a program specialist at the Boston Tax Help Coalition, helped one of her long-time clients prepare his tax return. As the two chatted in Portuguese, her client, Lucas*, mentioned that a company was helping him fix his credit score.

“Are you paying them for that?” Paterlini asked.

“Yes, about $800 a month,” he replied.  

Paterlini was immediately suspicious. Lucas was a recent immigrant who was still learning how the tax, credit, and lending systems worked in the U.S. He also did not speak much English. She knew that Lucas would be a prime target for predatory finance schemes.

Paterlini referred Lucas to her colleague, Jose Rodriguez, who is a multilingual financial coach with the Mayor’s Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE).  Jose walked Lucas through a free Financial Check-Up. The Check-Up, which was conducted in Spanish, included a personalized financial assessment and credit score review. Jose then helped Lucas come up with a plan to rebuild his credit without the help of the “credit-fixing” company.

Lucas managed to clear his credit in eight months. The following year, when Lucas went to file his taxes, he nearly cried when he saw how much he would be getting back. He had had no idea that his cleared credit would impact his tax returns so much. His return increased about 1,200% from $600 to $8,000.

This happy ending to Lucas’ story was made possible because the Boston Tax Help Coalition (BTHC) has spent the last 15 years developing fully-inclusive programming.  As part of the Office of Financial Empowerment, they provide free financial coaching to Boston residents. During the tax season, the Coalition’s accessibility practice has made it possible for anyone who uses another language or communicates in an alternative way to access free tax and asset-building services and get referrals for long-term assistance. This has had huge implications for advancing equity in communities that have traditionally had less access to resources and opportunities for financial empowerment.

“Integrative and collaborative programming is hard work, but it is a critical part of what we do because this is what an inclusive city can look like,” says Mimi Turchinetz, Director of the Boston Tax Help Coalition. While accessibility planning does not happen overnight, Turchinetz and her team have been persistent in refining their services to be as inclusive as possible.

For example, BTHC hires nine part-time Ambassadors who lead outreach efforts across various immigrant and disability communities within Boston. Ambassadors are multilingual community leaders who are fluent in English and at least one other language: American Sign Language (ASL), Arabic, Cabo Verdean Creole, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. They play an important role in educating clients, helping with tax returns, and building trust in their communities.

The organization also recruits and trains about 400 volunteers per year, some of whom are fluent in other languages besides English. Volunteers help clients file taxes and some are available to provide interpretation services at more than 30 tax sites all over Boston.   

In addition to supporting language accessibility, BTHC has been a leader in integrating their services with the needs of the disability community. They have evaluated all their partner tax sites for ADA compliance and run regular training for staff and volunteers on best practices when communicating with individuals with disabilities.

BTHC also organizes American Sign Language (ASL) Tax Days in partnership with the Mayor’s Disabilities Commission and Deaf Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that serves individuals who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf Blind. These tax days are designed to accommodate people across diverse needs and communications preferences. A number of ASL hearing interpreters and Deaf interpreters are hired to make these tax days possible. This year’s sessions helped around 100 people file their tax returns and receive Financial Check-Ups.

The Coalition’s language and communications accessible programming makes it possible for thousands of Boston residents to access free asset-building services like tax preparation help, Financial Check-Ups, credit-building, one-on-one finance and career coaching, and much more.

And when it comes to the impact of the organization, Paterlini says it best: “We do so much more than offer tax help in other languages or translate materials. We help people rebuild their lives.”

The Boston Tax Help Coalition is a public-private partnership managed by the Mayor’s Office of Financial Empowerment. In 2018, the organization helped nearly 13,000 low- and middle-income taxpayers recover approximately $33 million dollars in refunds and credits. The 2019 tax season was the Coalition’s 18th year providing free tax preparation services for Boston residents and there are no plans of slowing down.

*Lucas’ name has been changed to protect their identity.

The Office of Language and Communication Access works to strengthen the City of Boston so that services, programs and activities are meaningfully accessible to all constituents. To learn more, visit the Language and Communications Access website.

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