Since our report on language barriers was published, we've been sharing findings with community partners to turn research into action. Targeted knowledge translation efforts helped the City of Toronto, Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation, and the Toronto Seniors Strategy Accountability Table understand the housing experiences of older tenants while providing a clear path forward to reduce language barriers.
In Canada, 31 per cent of older adults are immigrants, and up to 50 percent are not fluent in either official language. For those with limited English proficiency, language is frequently a barrier when seeking or accessing health and community support services. This includes housing supports, where a lack of translation and interpretation supports could lead to tenants missing out on important housing information, resulting in an eviction.
In a recent research report published by Wellesley Institute, we explored the language barriers faced by older adult tenants in social housing and identified opportunities to strengthen housing and support services for those with limited English proficiency. Since the report was published, we have shared our findings with various community partners across Toronto to help move our recommendations into action. Key partners that we worked with included the City of Toronto Seniors Services and Long-Term Care Division, Toronto Seniors Strategy Accountability Table, and Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation, including the Seniors Tenant Advisory Committee.
Language barriers were a major factor that impacted tenants’ housing experiences. As most communication was in English, older tenants with limited English proficiency faced challenges accessing information about their building and tenancy. This made it difficult for them to be aware of building updates, make maintenance requests, stay up to date on tenancy matters, communicate with housing staff, and participate meaningfully in their community. Based on these experiences several actions were recommended for housing providers to enhance supports for older tenant with limited English proficiency.
In October, we presented the key themes and recommendations to the Toronto Seniors Strategy Accountability Table. This is a large, multidisciplinary network with members from various City divisions, community agencies, academia, healthcare, local businesses, older adults, and caregivers that are committed to making the City of Toronto age friendly.
We also partnered with Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation to share the research report and key recommendations with housing staff and tenants. At a presentation for the Senior Tenant Advisory Committee (STAC), we explored tenant perspectives on how best to action these recommendations and learn other ideas they had to create more inclusive communities for those with limited English proficiency.
Finally, Wellesley presented findings and recommendations to the City of Toronto’s Services and Long-Term Care Community Program Staff that run nine seniors’ supportive housing programs and a homemaking and nursing program to explore how other housing-support programs can apply these recommendations to their work.
During our discussions with partners, we found broad agreement that improved data collection was critical for making any progress towards eliminating language barriers. Tenants had several suggestions for how their housing provider could approach the collection of this data in a respectful way and stressed the importance of explaining how the data will allow them to provide more proactive services and create more inclusive communities. Translating key housing documents was seen as a “simple, common-sense approach” that had numerous rewards: creating a sense of belonging through inclusive and accessible communication, ensuring tenants are better prepared for building or unit maintenance, reducing safety risks, and informing tenants on where to go for assistance. As one tenant said:
“Language barriers for seniors in social housing are not a new problem, but it has become a much bigger problem in our wonderful multicultural setting. Although we all see it, not much has been done to address it in an organized or efficient way. [This research] is so timely and important. It lays a foundation for us all to work together to overcome this barrier that so many face.” – Senior Tenant, Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation
At the Seniors Tenant Advisory Committee meeting tenants shared their own ideas on ways to reduce language barriers within their buildings. For instance, they wanted to see all housing staff equipped with translations apps on their work phones, and for the housing provider to work with community partners to offer English language classes in the buildings. Tenants also wanted to see a revamped tenant engagement system that prioritized language access. One suggestion was to highlight diverse language skills as an asset for tenant representatives. Another idea was to create a new tenant leadership role for those who have the skills and are interested in providing informal language support to their neighbours. For these strategies to be effective, housing providers will need to ensure that they have a detailed understanding of the language needs in specific buildings, and strategies to ensure that tenant leaders are proficient in those languages.
Last, we were delighted to see that the Seniors’ Services and Long-Term Care division at the City of Toronto leveraged our recommendations in their recent evaluation of the Integrated Service Model at Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation. Their findings aligned with our own, confirming that a key priority for older tenants is more accessible communication and engagement, especially for those with limited English proficiency. The recommendations in our research report were used by the division as a roadmap to craft their own approaches for how housing providers can increase language access.
Targeted knowledge translation efforts helped the City of Toronto, Toronto Seniors Housing Corporation, and the Toronto Seniors Strategy Accountability Table understand the housing experiences of older tenants with limited English proficiency, while providing a clear path forward to reduce language barriers. We were able to have thoughtful discussions and see the ways our recommendations were adopted across settings. Housing is a crucial social determinant of health. Without proper translation supports, people with limited English proficiency miss out on critical housing information that may place their housing at risk. Proactive translation efforts, recording language profiles, and training staff are just some of the ways we can ensure that everyone has access to housing information in languages they can understand.
Disclaimer: This report was part of a larger Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation funded project led by Dr. Sander Hitzig at Sunnybrook Research Institute and Andrea Austen at the City of Toronto. Wellesley Institute was a project partner.