I had the pleasure of speaking at "International Online Conference 2020: Language Access in the New Normal" on June 26, 2020. The event was hosted by Interpreter Education Online, a company in Michigan and owned by Jinny Bromberg.
The one-day event included panels, presentations, and workshops, all focusing on how the pandemic has transformed the language industry, and how we can all adapt moving forward. With a wide range of speakers such as Eliana Lobo from CCHI, Howard A. Rosenblum from the the National Association of the Deaf, Stella Paris of Translators Without Borders, former President of the ATA Caitilin Walsh, and many other experts from different aspects of this field.
The event started with a panel discussing "What the Future Holds". I had the pleasure to serve as a speaker on this panel with the very knowledgeable industry researcher Konstantin Dranch, and the well-rounded veteran of our industry Dr. Bill Rivers, Principal at WP Rivers and Associates and long-time Executive Director of JNCL-NCLIS. We three were tasked with analyzing the ways the pandemic has changed or disrupted out field, but also with discussing opportunities for practitioners in this industry.
I brought research and insight to mostly the North America perspective. Just like most of the world, onsite interpreting was affected the most. Up until the end of 2019, 80% of all interpreting in the US market was onsite. Lockdowns and physical distancing shut down the venues for these services or spread the fear of viral spread when not closed. Ready or not, end clients everywhere quickly shifted to virtual interpretation. But clients weren't always ready, not able, to make such a shift. And language service companies often scrambled to help them with this shift, often trying to become instant experts themselves. Interpreters soon realized their onsite work wasn't coming back any time soon, and many are still trying to learn or adapt to their new normal of being virtual interpreters.
The three of us on the panel discussed alternative options for linguists and companies moving forward. This worldwide event has led to an explosion in telemedicine. Though born out of need, the previous frictions to adoption in the US were federal and state government reimbursement policies, and also user comfort. Those government policies were quickly relaxed to allow and encourage hospital networks and other healthcare providers to use the technology. Several startups have even popped up just in this specific space to offer more tools to choose from. Thought this just added extra decision confusion for those providers.
Comfort levels with telemedicine has also increased dramatically. Studies show that medical professionals were historically somewhat hesitant, as were the majority of certain age demographics. But the fear of going to a hospital during the pandemic led to more people 'trying' telemedicine. And preliminary polls in some states show both providers and patients are more comfortable with telemedicine than they expected and are willing to use it again. This strongly suggests telemedicine will continue as a major aspect of healthcare interpreting even after "pandemic time" ends. Although, no one is really sure what post-pandemic time will look like.
Aside from telemedicine, onsite interpretation is expected to continue to increase (once the hospitals aren't mostly dealing with novel coronavirus). A study of the American Hospital Association database found that 1/3 of all hospitals in the US did not offer or rarely offer language services. This study was, however, conducted just before Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") went into effect, and since then, smaller studies suggest only a small fraction of these hospitals have started offering language services more in line with federal obligations.
Virtual conferences have become ubiquitous during global stay-at-homes. As we all start to travel again one day, many event organizers may decide to continue heir events online. Some attendees will be psychologically ready to travel before others. But also, the costs of virtual events can be much lower than onsite events. I have helped plan and organize over a dozen large onsite conferences, and trust me, they are complex and very expensive. But as associations and companies everywhere experiment with best practices for virtual events, we still don't know how much attendees will accept or prefer virtual. Onsite gatherings definitely have their advantages. Is the trade off worth it when fear of closeness is no longer a factor? We will have to wait find out. But Bill, Konstantin, and I all agreed that some virtual conferences will continue, and many will need video interpreters. So there will be growth in this sub-field, it's just unclear how much.
We also focused on the big picture for our industry. Is the pandemic ending or permanently reducing language services? Not at all! The industry has been growing rapidly for over a decade. And in the past five years of so interpretation has been the fastest growing main service line in both the US and European markets. The drivers for this growth were government regulation and compliance, buyer desire to increase access to LEPs, and buyer desire to reach new audiences for profit. While COVID-19 disrupted everything in our world, these drivers of growth for interpretation remain unchanged. People still want or require interpretation.
The industry has slowed a little, but will rebound and will continue to grow - rapidly. There is hope in this haziness. Even if it's hard to see. Stay safe.