Kim Bates woke up Nov. 12 with sore shoulders and a sore back. Her biceps were in pain even before she’d gone to bed.
The previous evening she spent two and a half hours on her feet at the front of a hot, packed auditorium where Kansas University held a town hall forum on race. One after another, KU students, faculty and staffers unleashed.
Bates was the one translating it all into American Sign Language.
“Part of interpreting work is matching the message,” Bates said. The pain, the frustration, the anger, the heavy subject matter, the voices sometimes rising to yells — “I have to take that and make it visual.”
“It’s exhausting work.”
Bates, 39, is the interpreter coordinator for KU’s Academic Achievement and Access Center. She has worked at KU for 16 years, and in addition to interpreting for deaf students in class as needed, she also translates at most of KU’s biggest events.
Those include Traditions Night, convocation and commencement every year, she said. This year also included President Barack Obama’s address in January at KU’s Anschutz Sports Pavilion, and former President Bill Clinton’s speech in November at the Lied Center.
Bates said she never considers any assignment harder or easier than another, though, just different.
Her singular goal for all is to provide access for people who are deaf.
“And I want it to be equal access — as much as I’m possibly able to,” Bates said.
That’s how Bates came to learn sign language in the first place.
She grew up on a farm and attended school in tiny Chapman, Kan. In seventh-grade, a boy who was deaf joined her class.
“I remember thinking, ‘If he has an interpreter who’s signing to him in class, then why aren’t we learning some signs to talk to him?’” she said.
Bates bought a book and started teaching herself to sign. She hung out with the student, his interpreter and the interpreter’s deaf son to practice. She took on sign language as an independent study 4-H project and went on to get her associate’s degree in sign language interpreting at Johnson County Community College.
She has her bachelor’s degree from KU in speech-language-hearing and expects to earn her master’s in education this spring, also from KU.
Bates translated for KU graduate Tara Schupner Congdon throughout her years at the university. Congdon is now manager of communications for the National Science Foundation Center of Learning for Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Congdon said Bates’ commitment gave her accurate translations in both directions — from English to sign language, and from sign language to English so she could actively participate in class discussion.
“She doesn't simply clock in, interpret the dialogue, and clock out,” Congdon said. “She genuinely cares about giving deaf students complete, top-quality access to the college experience, and she has made incredible sacrifices in time and energy to ensure that happens.”
Interpreting involves much more than just making words with one’s hands.
One challenge Bates takes seriously is preparation.
Prior to Obama’s speech, for example, she watched the previous speech from his tour on YouTube, correctly assuming he’d discuss some of the same themes and enabling her to get familiar with the content.
For other events, she looks up the names of administrators or other individuals that may be mentioned to ensure she knows who they are and how to spell them. For class lectures, she may contact professors ahead to review course readings or find out whether there’s discipline-specific jargon she needs to learn.
“If I don’t have proficiency, fluency, then access is compromised,” Bates said.
Another challenge is accurately reflecting not just information but intonation and emotion.
At KU’s town hall forum on race, Bates translated forceful verbal statements with forceful hand movements. She said she tried to reflect tearful or angry countenances with matching facial expressions, without overdoing it.
“I wanted to be able to capture the emotion, without looking like there’s a white woman mocking,” she said.
What about the n-word and the f-word, both uttered at the forum? Body parts in an anatomy class, or things like sexual innuendo in a class on Shakespeare?
There are ways to sign everything, Bates said. “I will sign whatever is spoken.”
Bates’ job at KU includes scheduling other interpreters besides herself, and normally she said she’d schedule two for any event that was highly emotional or longer than an hour.
KU’s town hall forum on race was only scheduled to last an hour. After protests from students who wanted more time, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little continued the forum until all had a chance to speak — an additional hour and a half.
“I was going to stand up there and interpret until she closed the floor,” Bates said.
Bates is not sure whether there were even any deaf people in the audience that day.
But KU administration had requested her services, and it’s her job to deliver, she said.
One of the biggest life challenges for deaf people is connecting with the world around them, Congdon said.
“Deafness in itself is never the barrier to benefiting from any of these,” she said. “Communication mode is, and interpreters are part of the package of access tools that enable the deaf student to actively engage.”
Among other opportunities, Congdon said Bates’ dedication enabled her to participate in an honors course that included traveling to England for a week. Bates came.
“It wasn't some fun trip for her. She interpreted solo, without a team, 10-plus hours a day, seven straight days,” Congdon said. “She did that because she wanted me to have the exact same access that all my hearing peers at KU did.”
Translating for figures like Obama and Clinton is exciting, Bates said.
“I have to take the moment to go, ‘Wow, I’ve just interpreted for a president, or a former president,’” she said. “It’s kind of a cool thing.”
But she said her true passion is in postsecondary educational interpreting. Currently at KU there are 18 deaf or hard-of-hearing students registered with the Academic Achievement and Access Center, Bates said, and presumably more who are hard of hearing and have not registered. Not all those students use sign language services, but the center can help them with other forms of translation such as transcripts or closed captioning.
"Social justice doesn't just include race, poverty. It includes ability," Bates said. "Some of us have an extra layer of whatever that makes life harder, or creates challenges that we have to attack in a different manner."