Diana “Dia” Gaitirira learned American Sign Language (ASL) as a teenager back in Palm Bay, Florida, where her childhood church had an enticing social calendar:
“They would make these announcements:‘Deaf Ministry picnic next week,’ or ‘Deaf Ministry volleyball.’” So Gaitirira (pronounced guytareera) used the international symbols for, “Can I play volleyball with you guys?” by pointing to herself and then putting her hands together like she was about to bop a ball over the net. And members of that ministry communicated back with smiles that read: “Of course you can play with us.”
Simply by hanging out, she made lots of friends and got more involved with helping to interpret music—and occasionally a sermon. “I thought, I love doing this; I’m going to go to college and make a career of it.”
After earning an associate’s degree from Brevard Community College in Palm Bay, she continued her education at Hillsborough Community College’s Interpreter Training Program (ITP) in Tampa, with a mind towards further study. Intent upon upping her game, she made the bold move of applying to Gallaudet University, a federally funded chartered school for the Deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, DC. “I wanted to be the best and surround myself with Deaf people,” she recalls. The school had a special program called Hearing Undergraduate Students (HUGS), and at the time they only allowed five hearing students into the program, she says. The year she applied, she was not among the chosen few.
Undeterred, Gaitirira moved from Florida to Gaithersburg, Maryland, to be closer to the school “because I was determined to get in.” To fill the time until she could reapply, she participated in an internship at one of Washington, DC’s interpreting agencies, which eventually hired her. Two years later, when Gallaudet increased its spots for HUGS from 5 to 15, Gaitirira was among the freshman class.
She majored in Deaf studies, and found that her favorite course was ASL Literature with Professor Ben Bahan. In his class, none of their homework was written, instead “we turned in all of our assignments on videotape,” she says. She found her American Deaf History course similar to typical American history classes in that the people they learned about were mostly white, which frustrated her.
“A culturally and ethnically diverse group of heroes should be included in the curriculum of all mainstream schools,” she asserts. She does, however, remember enjoying classes in Asian Deaf Studies, African-American Deaf Studies, “and a fabulous class called Dynamics of Oppression.”
Being at the highly regarded Gallaudet created opportunities for her to meet modern day Deaf individuals whom she admires, including performer Warren “Wawa” Snipe, the Invisible Hands troupe, which mixes ASL and dance, along with the troupe’s artistic director Fred Beam.
“I also met the first African-American Deaf lawyer Claudia Gordon; she recently went on to work at the White House,” Gaitirira says.
As a hearing person at a Deaf university, she occasionally ran into prejudice. Similar to how a nonblack person might encounter resentment at a historically black college or university, she found that the reaction of some people at Gallaudet was less than welcoming. “What are you doing here?” they wanted to know. “I got resistance from some who gave me the feeling that I didn’t belong, like the university was just for them.”
She would have good days and bad days, and often found herself explaining: “You want more people out here who can sign clearly and have good training, so I’m here to be a better signer, which you say you don’t have enough of.” She took the reactions in stride, however, telling naysayers: “Hey, get over it, so I can learn and go out into the world and improve services for Deaf people.”
Like many college campuses, she found cliques: The international Deaf hung out with each other; the hard of hearing, who relied more on their voices, stuck together; the “generationally” Deaf, whose parents and grandparents were also Deaf, formed a community; and people of Caribbean and African heritage often gravitated towards one another.
Gaitirira thinks she might have formed closer friendships if she’d had more time to hang out, but she was going to school and working full time, while volunteering in the community. Yet she acknowledges that this was a “firstworld problem,” because a lot of countries don’t let people with disabilities go to school at all.
Now that she’s graduated and moved on, Gaitirira has a fuller appreciation of the culture at her alma mater: “One of the things I miss about being there is the theater. They did Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in complete sign language, and the traveling Deaf West Theater, which played Washington’s Lincoln Theater, mixed Deaf and hearing actors in a production of Big River.
ASL is not Gaitirira’s first foray into languages. Her roots are Haitian, and members of her family speak the country’s official language, French, and also Creole, based largely on 18thcentury French and a mix of West African languages. Then, while she was living in Maryland, she met future husband, Allan Gaitirira, who hails from Kenya and knows Swahili, as well as Kikuyu, a language of the Bantu family spoken by about 6 million Kenyans, more than 20 percent of the country’s population.
At home the Gaitiriras have created their “own little secret language that’s a little bit of everything,” the interpreter says. “Deaf culture is absolutely beautiful, and similar to African culture, because your heritage is passed down through storytelling.” The couple taps into their love for a welltold tale through their film production company, Cheza Jouer Films.
While Allan is a business accounts manager, Dia left Gallaudet with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies and found that graduating from such a prestigious university put her in line for a number of exciting opportunities. “When I apply for a job I usually get it,” she says.
She got a chance to do interpreting for passengers on military helicopter rides, at concerts and in dance classes; she had assignments with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the White House and the Pentagon, helping to keep the lines of communication open at meetings, briefings, workshops, trainings and speeches.
She’s even used her skills in Emergency Room (ER) hospitals; helped with labor and deliveries; and interpreted in myriad other medical situations.
“There was one DC/Metro area agency that had a program called Baby Watch, where the Deaf client would pick two to three of their favorite interpreters, with one being the primary interpreter for their pregnancy.” She was present at the mothertobe’s office or emergency visits, and during the actual labor.
“I had the pleasure of being picked as a primary a few times, I was flooded with emotions, excitement and stress. Every time I felt as though I was expecting a child because even when I was off duty, I would think: “What if my client delivers tonight? Am I ready? Did I pack my interpreter bag (deodorant, snacks, toothbrush, toothpaste and an extra outfit)?” As interpreters we’re trained to be neutral and invisible entities that relay information between two or more parties, but when there’s a baby on the way, it’s sometimes hard just to be the conduit.”
As they navigated the working world on the east coast, Gaitirira and her then new husband found themselves looking for a change. They began exploring less expensive places to live than the nation’s capital, and after shegot an interpreting assignment at a conference in Albuquerque for a week, the couple got a good look at the Duke city and began to meet people. By the time the conference was over, the Gaitiriras were sold on the Southwestern city, packed up and moved to Albuquerque. That was six years ago.
Dia Giatirira started out interpreting in an educational setting, from kindergarten to the university level, but found her niche in medical interpreting, her current career. She helps patients during doctors’ appointments, in the ER, and even in the operating room. But she doesn’t do legal interpreting because she has a difficult time comprehending the concepts, which puts her at a disadvantage in trying to communicate them to someone else. As someone who loves theater and music, however, she enjoys interpreting at concerts, where “you use your body more, swaying, and stretching out the signs rather than the more staccato style used while talking.”
While she’s not a rock star, Gaitirira sometimes feels like one: “When you tell people what you do—interpret for people who are Deaf or Deafblind—they treat you differently, because it’s one of the helping professions. They say, ‘Oh, wow, you do that?’ And they really respect it; they see it as selfless.”
It’s also a specialty that few can do, which makes her highly employable. Gaitirira uses her interpreting not only in medical and educational settings, but also in cultural ones, such as Black History Month events.
These days the Gaitiriras have their eyes on their budding acting careers. In recent years, New Mexico has become a goto place for productions. Recently Dia was cast in the new NBC medical show, The Night Shift, which shoots in Albuquerque. Her dream role would be to get cast on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, about two girls—one Deaf and one hearing— who end up being handed over to the wrong set of parents by the hospital, but who eventually meet and come together as friends. For Gaitirira, that scenario is the best of both worlds.
Dia Gaitirira, has a Certification of Interpretation (CI) and a Certification of Transliteration (CT), which means she’s qualified to interpret in American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English. ASL is a derivative of French Sign Language and uses English words but doesn’t follow English word order; it also uses facial expressions and body movement as grammatical markers. Signed English uses exact English word order, while Pidgin Signed English is a combination of both ASL and Signed English. A fourth dialect, used by the Deafblind community, is called Tactile Interpreting and is a method of signing and spelling letters in the hands and on the body of the client.