Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Issue of the Day: AMS Accessibility - Language

This hit me the other day. I was having a conversation with a candidate, asking him (candidate wasn't necessarily male, I'm just using the pronoun because it's easier) about his ideas, and he was having trouble communicating, and verbalizing them, particularly when I'd ask him to relate them to abstract concepts. I tried my reassuring best to indicate my patience, but the candidate was clearly flustered and probably growing frustrated with his inability to communicate with me.

Yes, I have a propensity for verbosity. And that's partly to blame. But I couldn't help but realize how damn frustrating it must be for someone for whom English is not a first language.

Think about it. How many AMS Councillors, or even Executives, have been non-English speakers? It can't be easy to articulate relatively complex platforms, answer debate-style questions, and engage with dense blogs like this one, for someone whose comfort with English is not first-rate. I can see why it just might not be worth the effort.

Moreover, it goes beyond participating in politics. Consider services. Many English language speakers won't know what "Advocacy" means and how it's distinct from an Ombudsperson, never mind someone for whom the language does not come naturally. Peruse clubs days banners, or walk through the lower level of the SUB at lunch hour - many signs, publications, and conversations are in languages other than English. The demand is clearly there.

To me, it begs the question - how can we address language barriers to make the AMS more accessible? Of course I see the need for a lingua franca, a language of business, which reasonably should be English. But there are some simple things we can do, to make the AMS more accessible. And by making it more accessible, it becomes more welcoming.

  • Print one-page overviews of AMS services in, say, ten different languages. Wouldn't cost much, would greatly increase access to services.
  • Have the occasional sign in a language other than English; much more welcoming.
  • Ensure language support at Speakeasy and other "store-front" type services
I don't know how to address issues of political participation, though I note that's probably a problem in the "real world" as well. Any thoughts? Should the AMS take positive steps to be more language-friendly?