Katie Witt

On the Button with American Sign Language

When coach Katie Witt took an American Sign Language course to communicate better with her Deaf curling team, she learned more than how to sign “hog to hog” times.

A coach’s job is to teach, motivate, train and inspire. But what if a coach and her team don’t speak the same language?

As the head coach for the Canadian Men’s Deaf Curling Team, a sport with its own signs and signals, Katie Witt knows the meaning of communication. Under her guidance, the Lower Mainland-based team earned a bronze at nationals in Ottawa in 2014, and a gold in Winnipeg in 2018. They now have their sights set on the 2019 Deaflympics in Italy next December.

Katie isn’t Deaf. When she started coaching her team in 2014, she had little, if any, sign language skills. It’s a role she would soon discover wouldn’t be without its challenges.

On the ice, she relies on an interpreter who rapidly translates her directions and instructions to the players. But as Katie remarks, "[The Deaf community] has a unique culture. The first few times I was with the team, I was trying to figure out how to align myself. How can I fit in? How can I be of service here? I was on my heels in terms of understanding the culture.

"I realized I needed to honour them."

She took it upon herself to learn sign language on her own time using Google Translate, and sometimes used an app at the rink. But she felt she wasn’t progressing fast enough. To her team’s surprise, she arrived at practice one day with a few course options, including a beginner course in American Sign Language (ASL) at UBC Extended Learning. According to Katie, the curlers didn’t hesitate to recommend UBC.

The Beginner 1 course Katie took was held over five mornings in the summer, and is taught entirely in sign language. Explains Katie, "Not a word is spoken in there. But our instructor Ryan stayed with us. He has an incredible ability to act things out, make things pertinent – and has a delightful sense of humour."

Besides learning signs, Katie also gained insight into Deaf culture. "It’s a huge focus of the textbook. Each chapter has a cultural piece, such as information on schools for the Deaf. It answers questions like, What do you do when you walk into a room with people signing? How do you approach the group? Doing the ASL course really opened my eyes to how I can walk in, introduce myself and let people know I’m not Deaf, but I can sign."

She also took away an important lesson in what it means to learn a language without words, spelling or sounds. "How naïve was it of me to think [my team] is speaking English. They are speaking ASL."

Katie plans to take Sign Language Beginner 2 in preparation for Italy. She keeps her Beginner 1 handbook on her desk at home, and often refers to the material to keep herself fresh. While she says she may never be able to sign as fast as curling demands, she now feels more part of the team. "I have a real sense of how to fit into the community, without the fear of being disrespectful. I am way more comfortable within Deaf culture now."

Adds Katie, "And we laugh a lot. We have a blast."

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