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Houston District Considers Improved Online Language Accessibility

More than half of the city’s District H population speaks Spanish at home and 1 in 3 Houstonians speak Spanish at home. The City Council District H candidates considered redesigning the website for increased accessibility.

Houston City Council District H candidates addressed making city communications accessible in multiple languages, including redesigning the city's website, at a Wednesday forum.

All five District H candidates attended the forum organized by local nonprofits including GO Neighborhoods Greater Northside Houston and Avenue. After addressing frequently discussed campaign topics, such as improving affordable housing and transportation, the focus shifted to an audience-submitted question on language accessibility.

"Do you believe having access to Spanish language at these events, like this event, is important in order for the community to access the resources and information?" an audience member whose name was not provided asked.

The audience member also said the city often has trouble relaying information in languages other than English.

More than half (59 percent) of the District H population speaks Spanish at home, at a higher rate than most other council district populations except District I (65 percent) and on par with District J (58 percent). About one in the three (38 percent) Houstonians city-wide speak Spanish at home, according to 2021 Census estimates. This forum had Spanish interpreters on-site sharing candidates' answers to audience members in real time.

Candidates agreed it was important to communicate information in languages other than English. The candidates were, in ballot order: Michelle Stearns, Sonia Rivera, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, Mark McGee and Mario Castillo.

Michelle Stearns talked about using technology to facilitate communication between languages.

Sonia Rivera highlighted she was bilingual and was the translator for her family growing up.

"I was having to communicate with my grandmother who raised me," Rivera recounted. "I had to communicate with her whenever I got in trouble in school. I had to communicate with her at the grocery store. I had to tell her what the lady at the cash register was saying. I understand the struggles of our average family that doesn't speak English."

Cynthia Reyes-Revilla said she intended to make the District H council page language accessible and support language accessibility on other partners' websites, such as the management districts'. She also talked about the creation of a portal where residents can look up what city projects are happening around them on a one-, two-, and five-year basis.

She previously called for the creation of a resident portal when talking about city street projects in Norhill, where residents worry vehicle lane reduction on North Main Street will affect residential neighborhood traffic.

The city shares information about active projects on Let's Talk Houston, which has a language drop-down menu in the top right corner.

Mark McGee said the city's website needs to be redesigned so non-English language speakers can more easily switch the website's language.

"It's all in English, and it's hard to navigate," McGee said of the city website. He also said he would have the District H webpage include a timeline of projects.

The City of Houston website has a Google function in the top right corner that allows users to choose a language from a drop-down menu.

Mario Castillo said representation in City Council was important to address language disparities. Castillo also noted the need to send out emergency alerts for non-English speakers during crisis.

Advocates say Houston struggles to make public information language accessible in a crisis, such as during a chemical fire that triggered a shelter-in-place in May. Woori Juntos, a language accessibility organization, said non-English speakers have to navigate an automatically generated and sometimes crude translation online to sign up for the city's alert system. The system doesn't offer critical alerts in languages other than English and Spanish.

Forum attendee and community resident Petra "Petty" Hinojosa, who is bilingual, said she sees a need for resources and communications for bilingual people. For her, that's a top issue for the neighborhood, alongside addressing crime, park safety and stray dogs.

(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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