Social Security Experience Panels - ethnic minorities: report

This report is on research with ethnic minority groups about their past experiences of social security and the barriers that exist to them in accessing support. It provides information about the steps Social Security Scotland is taking to help overcome these barriers.

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Language barriers and creating accessible public information

Language barriers

Almost all focus groups felt that language barriers prevented ethnic minorities accessing what they were entitled to. Participants who spoke in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Nepalese all described a general problem of struggling to feel included in a system that always communicated in a language that was not their first. 

Many participants discussed how having limited English made it difficult for them to access the information in leaflets, social media, and official websites that inform the public about the benefits system. Some said that they could understand bits of information, but struggled to get a full up-to-date picture of what they were entitled to and how they could access it. Others said that they were reliant on getting others to help to translate the information that was distributed by authorities. 

"For a person who doesn’t have English as a first language, the experience is not positive. Because the form, the booklet that describes how to fill the form, or leaflet about entitlement, all in English."

"There are large language barriers. I can’t understand the forms and some of the words on the leaflets."

"People can’t read and write in English even though they live here. Need to think about how things can work for those who speak different languages."  

Many who spoke in English during their focus groups, also said they hadn’t been confident using the websites and information materials that they had seen about the benefit system in the past. Some felt that even though they could speak English in a face to face conversation, they did not feel comfortable making sense of the complicated and technical language often used by authorities.

A number of participants said that they were worried about misinterpreting information, making an error, and then being sanctioned or prosecuted.  

"When officials and documents say certain things they use jargon. It’s not clear what they are talking about or asking for."

"If I read some information on my own, I can’t work out exactly who is eligible, what is expected of you once you are getting benefits. I can’t work out other bits of the process and I would feel like I was telling a lie if I tried to answer something I didn’t fully understand."  

Some - particularly in the sessions conducted with older groups - described how information materials were particularly inaccessible for older generations. 

"Usually, older members of the community ask their children to make contact with the relevant organisation and read the letters. This is because they speak no English at all."

"For us older people, it’s difficult. We don’t speak full English, and it is hard to learn."

"Language barriers make it difficult especially for older people to understand what is out there. I have an iPad, but I don’t really know what words to use to find out information. Need a bit more help to understand the information and who I should talk to."  

Several also described how they knew people who could speak English but had low literacy levels. They felt that this made it hard for them to use information materials that were in English. 

"Because they are not literate don’t know where to go or how to get help. Sometimes women rely on their husbands."

Multi-lingual public information

Participants felt that alongside having greater volumes of information in locations that were trusted and well-attended by ethnic minorities, it was also important for information materials to break down language barriers.  

Many participants – in various language groups - suggested that information in leaflets and booklets about different benefits could be translated into different languages and dialects. 

"If translation was provided in leaflets, it could tell us what department we need to go to for different things."    

"Have leaflets in different languages in the doctor’s surgeries and day centres, so we can find out what we can apply for."    

"I know I can get some kind of leaflet or booklet from the Job Centre, but I don’t know if it’s the right one."    

"Have leaflets in the right dialect, with the option to call someone."

Some participants – who spoke in Urdu, or Cantonese, or Mandarin – said that they would like leaflets with information in both English and a translation in their own language. They said having two languages in one place would help them cross-reference and have a clearer understanding of what certain words meant. Multi-lingual resources were also helpful because they would allow families (with different language skills between older and younger generations) to work through information about the benefits system together. 

"Have a leaflet in English and in Urdu – both languages at the same time."

"English and Chinese in one leaflet, explaining where to go for which benefit would be very useful. English is needed in the leaflet too, because the children sometimes don’t read Chinese, and families want to look at information together."

A few also made the point that having a multi-language resource would help send an inclusive message, that would make them feel more confident about the preservation of different cultures in Scotland. 

"We’re proud to be Scottish Chinese and have Chinese culture. Children receive a Western education, parents want to encourage Chinese culture at home. Multi language things are helpful."

A number of participants specifically mentioned the idea that Social Security Scotland could create a multi-language booklet. They felt that this could translate basic information about specific benefits and the general system into a number of different languages in the same place. 

"A booklet is the best source for basic information. Before I apply, I’d like to know details about the entitlement. Could be printed in community languages. English is not my first language, so if there was a booklet printed in 6 community languages, I would pick it up and have a look. I’d be more confident to apply."

"If the government was to publish a small booklet of essential information in multiple languages – with the eligibility criteria easily understood – it would be making the initial engagement very simple for people. This could be easily shared around in the community."    

Others said that multi-lingual resources would help reduce the number of errors and mistakes on client’s claims that came from misinterpretation about language. Several also said that multi-lingual resources would help to provide an inclusive message about different cultures. This would encourage more ethnic minorities to apply for what they were entitled to. 



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