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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Spanish is not a disability

What do you call a person speaking two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person speaking one? American.

For being a melting pot of cultural diversity, America sure is homogenous in the way it communicates. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world where a majority of citizens only know one language. People from nearly every other continent might call this blasphemy. Americans, however, call it “pride.”

“This is America, speak English” is rhetoric native-born and naturalized Americans have heard all too often. The flaw in this logic is this: America does not have an official language.

Puerto Rico, where 95 percent of citizens above the age of 5 speak Spanish at home, exemplifies the lingual diversity allowed by the U.S. Constitution. A compromising ruling by the Social Security Administration, though, challenges this.

As reported by The Washington Post, according to a government audit, “Hundreds of Puerto Rica’s residents qualified for federal disability benefits in recent years because they lacked fluency in English.”

This federal assistance operates under the premise that not speaking English (even in a predominantly Spanish-speaking U.S. territory) can hamper participation in the workforce as much as a disability.

The fact that this loophole logic was applied in Puerto Rico of all places is ridiculous. Location and misappropriation of federal funds aside, it points to some problematic ways in which the federal government treats those lacking English fluency.

Of course, inability to speak English in the continental U.S. can greatly reduce one’s ability to secure employment. However, not every challenge is a disability. If a person has a learning disability that renders them unable to learn a new language, that’s a different story. Otherwise, abled non-English speakers looking for work, while disadvantaged, are not disabled.

Elisa Vasquez, Undersecretary General of Spanish Coordination for Arizona Model United Nations, agreed.

“Many community centers and schools offer free English classes,” Vasquez said, “so many [non-English speaking] people have the option to learn, but they don’t.”

Non-fluency, unlike an actual disability, is a condition reversed by education. That preferring to speak another language in America can be considered a disability is patronizing and insulting to minorities. While well-intentioned, federal benefit provisions for “unofficial” language speakers operate under the false assumption there is an official language in the U.S. (Again, there isn’t.)

Furthermore, they go as far as equating English speakers to regularly-abled, productive Americans and non-English speakers to disabled, unproductive Americans who can’t contribute skills successfully to society.

Rather than placating non-English speakers through misapplied benefits, we should encourage them to participate in programs and develop skills to better prepare them for success in today’s English-dominated market.

Likewise, we should do the same for those who speak English as a first language. English speakers need to shed the delusion that English is the dominant language by learning new languages to make them more adept for success in the global market.

Language and culture are intertwined. To regard one’s language and one’s culture as crippling is discordant with the American spirit of protecting free speech and establishing individual liberty.


Hailey Dickson is a freshman studying public health and molecular & cellular biology. Follow her on Twitter.

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