Sign language interpreter Billy Sanders went viral as “ASL Bae” but he has a big mission: advancing deaf equal rights, urging Black men to become interpreters and getting HBCUs to start interpreter training degree programs.
Sanders, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he was amused by the attention he got online for his expressive interpretation of concerts, the March on Washington 2020 and press conferences by D.C.’s mayor. He even caught the attention of Halle Berry.
“I’m not even on social media. My brother, Joe, sent it to me and I was like, ‘Oh, OK!’ It’s cool but I just do my job,” he said with a shrug, wearing black-and-gold aviators, a brick-colored suit and a matching pocket square.
Sanders’ mother is deaf. She left school at 16 but “used her brilliance to navigate the world,” he said. She wanted him to become an interpreter but he resisted and couldn’t see it as a viable career path.
“I wasn’t exposed to the likes of me when I was young. All I’d seen were a bunch of white women interpreting,” he said.
Less than 5% of interpreters are Black, according to the 2019 data from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
It took years until Sanders seriously considered interpreting professionally. He said he hopes other young, Black men will find the career path earlier.
Sanders has interpreted all kinds of speeches, events and concerts. The majority of his work is in hospitals, though, where he said he loves filling an urgent need to connect deaf people with the care they need.
He previously worked as an adjunct professor at Florida State University and Florida A&M University. Only a handful of historically Black colleges and universities offer sign language as a for-credit course and none offer interpreter training as a degree program yet, he said. Doing so would open doors for young Black people.
Sanders said he loves D.C., his home since 2009, and wants hearing residents to take the District’s deaf community more seriously.
“We’re in the deaf mecca of the U.S., literally, of the world. There is no place like Washington, D.C., due to Gallaudet University being here. I really hope that hearing people cross the bridge to give equity to the deaf people who are right around us. These are our brothers, our sisters, our cousins, our aunts, our uncles,” he said.