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Who is language and communications access for?

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.

Who benefits from language and communications access? The short answer is that it is for any constituent who requires language or communications assistance when interacting with the City of Boston. This constituency includes Boston residents, business owners, visitors, students, community members, etc.

More specifically, our program focuses on providing meaningful access to two main demographic groups: people who use languages other than English and people who have disabilities. Below is an overview of these demographic groups in Boston as of 2016. To explore City and neighborhood-specific data in more detail, check out our Demographic Data Reports for Language and for Disability.


About 37% of Boston’s population uses a language besides English at home. Some are fluent in multiple languages, including English. About 17% say they have some difficulty in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding English. Like any skill, there is a range of proficiencies when it comes to knowing a language. Some people may be in the beginning stages of learning. Others may be fluent but need additional support in specific contexts such as legal or medical situations. It is important to recognize these differences as being unique to the individual and circumstance.

The City of Boston supports interpretation and translation for anyone who needs assistance in a language other than English. The top ten most commonly requested language accommodations in Boston are:

  1. Spanish
  2. Haitian Creole
  3. Mandarin - Chinese
  4. Vietnamese
  5. Cantonese - Chinese
  6. Cape Verdean Creole
  7. Russian
  8. Arabic
  9. Portuguese
  10. French

Our goal is to reduce barriers for people with disabilities that may affect their hearing, speaking, reading, writing, and/or understanding. Increasing communications accessibility includes using supportive technology, adapting the way information is presented and providing services that help people express themselves and understand others.

In Boston, there are more than 84,000 people who have a disability. About 22% self-identify as Deaf or have a hearing difficulty, and 21% self-identify as being blind or having a vision difficulty. It is important to recognize that people experience their disability in different ways. A disability can be visible and invisible. It can present several challenges or few challenges to a person’s mobility, independent-living, or communications ability. Furthermore, one person’s disability may have vastly different implications on their livelihood than another person’s experience with the same disability.

With this in mind, the City of Boston is working to adopt several standards to increase citywide accessibility for people with disabilities. Specifically, we:

  1. Advertise American Sign Language and Communications Access Real-Time Translation (CART) services
  2. Write text at the 8th-grade reading level and avoid using technical term.
  3. Use simple and clear design which means less text and more images and icons
  4. Provide options for video captions, image descriptions, audio transcripts, alternative formatting, and PDF-readable documents for all media
What’s next?

We understand that people’s experiences cannot always be simplified to a single label or category. There is a wide range of ways in which someone may experience a language or communication barrier. As such, we are in the midst of a citywide data collection effort to better understand the intersections of language, disability, age, and other details. Learn more about the Language, Disability, and Childcare Survey here (translations available).

The best way for us to expand our efforts is to learn from people who would benefit from greater accessibility. We’d love to hear how we are doing, what we can do to improve, or how this kind of accessibility has changed your interactions with the City. You can write to us or submit an anonymous form.

Know that your feedback will help shape what we do today and the future direction for years to come.

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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