Banner depicting 2021: The year virtual came to healthcare by Merrie Wallace on virtual healthcare interpretation

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the market for language support in America and led to the largest interpretation market in the world.

As we’ve talked about in other posts, the US is the largest global industry for interpretation needs by far. In 2021, the US accounted for 5.1 billion of the 8.8 billion dollar estimated global interpretation market.

The industries in the US that use interpretation are diverse: healthcare, legal, education, business, and nonprofit are just a few sectors who require interpretation as a part of their business. However, separate from the market’s response to the changing demographics in the United States, healthcare, court systems and education are all areas in which language support is required by law.

Interestingly, the legacy of these legal requirements for language support are especially meaningful during Black History Month.

How the Civil Right Act of 1964 led to language support as a civil right

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the capstone on decades of Black activism seeking equal rights regardless of race or ethnic origin. As most know, the 1964 Act established equal protection under the law regardless of race or ethnic origin (with protected classes expanding over the next 60 years). The equal protection clause would be the basis for the cases that developed the idea of language support as we know it today.

In addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act that crucially shaped the language market in America passed in 1965 – the Hart-Celler Act. This immigration reform law expanded quotas for Latin American and Asian countries and led to the formation of growing limited English proficiency (LEP) communities throughout the US developing at a scale unseen since the early late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As these communities sent children to school, the lack of bilingual education opportunities created barriers to learning for students. In response to this educational isolation in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a Legal Aid attorney named Edward Steinman challenged the school district’s language policies on behalf of Chinese students and families in the area. While there were other legal challenges placed in this suit, the main legal argument for the case rested on the idea that “ensuring equal opportunity required more than affording the same treatment for differently situated students.”

The case, Lau vs. Nichols, would make its way to the Supreme Court, where the Justices concluded: “Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin-minority group children from effective participation . . ., the district must take affirmative steps . . . to open its instructional program to these students.”

In essence, this case set a precedent that not providing language support was in itself discriminatory, even in the absence of intent. For schools to comply with non-discrimination law, they were required to expand access to LEP students in the form of language support. The precedent would over the next forty years extend to basically all public institutions, including healthcare and court systems.

Today, any health provider receiving federal funding (in the form of Medicare or Medicaid payments, for example), must provide language support as a non-discriminatory practice. Court systems are under the same compliance pressure, which is why shortages in courtroom interpreters are a civil rights issue as well as a procedural issue.

So as we celebrate Black History Month here in the states, we also celebrate the fight for language support as a civil right. Our industry and the innovative interpretation technology would not be what it is without the history behind widespread language access in America.

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