In the event of a disaster, we have observed interpreting agencies and interpreters on both sides of the spectrum. Some interpreters have volunteered their time in various Facebook groups to interpret in ASL for videos from the local, state, and federal governments, public health agencies, and disaster response organizations. Meanwhile, others have been called out for price gouging, which is generally considered unethical and frowned upon practice in every profession–not just the service industry.
With schools closing and businesses no longer accepting in-person patrons, the amount of face-to-face interpreting requests has drastically decreased and subsequently, businesses without video interpreting services are seeing revenue decreases. Interpreters with specialties other than the VRS and medical fields are looking at a much lighter schedule and worrying about how they can get enough work and support their families. VRS positions are open for interpreters to apply; however, VRS companies do have standards that the interpreters must follow in order to work there and VRS interpreting also comes with its own set of problems. In this case, some interpreters working as independent contractors may feel tempted to increase their hourly rate for accepted assignments in order to compensate for a lower amount of available work.
Let’s take a moment to think of simple economics. When the demand is low and there is a surplus of supplies, the businesses tend to lower prices as an incentive for customers to make purchases. When the demand is high and the supply is low or limited (such as the damage on crops from natural disasters, like hurricanes, for example), businesses tend to increase the prices. Given the scenario described above, is price gouging entirely unethical?
Some community members are against price-gouging because they believe that overcharging for interpreting services (or any other social service for that matter) can cause a ripple effect, decreasing the lack of access for Deaf families and individuals in need. Companies with previous use of or existing agreements with interpreting services may be turned off by the sudden increase in costs. Others assert that it’s a valid concern because we do not know how long it will be in this type of situation. It has been speculated that the pandemic may last until June or July, while most are hoping that the wait-out time is shorter.
As interpreters are a necessity for the Deaf community, members often feel like what happens within the interpreting profession is completely out of their control. Our access is dependent on the integrity of this profession as a whole. Public health and disaster emergencies continue to raise questions on price gouging and other business practices (i.e., whether the interpreter should be certified/licensed or not, legal enforcement for the quality of interpreting services) within the interpreting field.
The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another public health emergency, only on a much more prolonged and severe level. Having emergency plans are so important and yet, we as a community and as a country have completely ignored this necessity for too long. The question remains: What are the take-away lessons for the interpreting field to adopt, so the efforts of community members to improve the quality and availability of interpreting services are not in vain?