Ironworkers host deaf students at Burnaby welding camp

Four out of the seven youths who took part in a welding camp for B.C. Provincial School for the Deaf (BCSD) students in Burnaby last week weren’t sure they wanted to be there at first, according to surveys they filled out on day one.

But, whether it was shooting flames or flying sparks or watching the metal take shape under their own hands, their reluctance was shortlived.

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“When they showed up, they were kind of humming and ha-ing whether they should be here or not, but we got them into the booth, and they’ve been smiling ever since,” said Andy Smith, a trainer with Ironworkers Union Local 97, which hosted the event at its headquarters June 20 to 24.

The event was one of 35 Mind Over Metal camps being funded across Canada by the Canadian Welding Association (CWA) Foundation this year to give at-risk youth a hands-on introduction to welding and the career options the skill can open up.

“The students at the B.C. School for the Deaf are often overlooked when it comes to opportunities in the trades and we want them to experience welding from a hands-on perspective,” said Deborah Mates, executive director of the foundation. “This is one of many outreach projects throughout the country the CWA Foundation has planned for this year, but it is probably the most unique in terms of the demographic.”

Grade 7 student Matty Molloy decided to give the camp a try because her mom is a welder and she wanted to get a sense of what the job is like.

“I was a little worried about – just like fire and sparks jumping onto your clothes or burning things or making mistakes or hurting myself,” she told the NOW through a sign-language interpreter, “but this week I haven’t had any problems really. There’s been no real big failures. It’s gone well.”

Pursuing a welding career might be an option for her someday, she said, but making art was what appealed to her during the camp.

“I definitely enjoy the creative and art side,” she said, “but I wouldn’t mind doing it for work. I enjoy building things and working with my hands. I think it’s good work, but I like the creative side more.”

For Ken McKen, western manager of the CWA Foundation (the charitable arm of the national welding association), creativity and a career in welding aren’t mutually exclusive.

“To me welding’s an art,” he said, “and I think that’s kind of what we’re showing students here, is that if they use their creativity and use their imagination, they can become an artist. … We’ve had some great creations here. Who knows where it might go.”

McKen said the idea of putting on a Mind Over Metal camp for deaf youth dates back to an interaction he had with BCSD students at a LNG conference in October.

The students showed interest in the welding simulator at the CWA booth, but were hesitant to give it a try.

When McKen pointed out how to use visual prompts in the helmet, a few really took to the activity.

The CWA Foundation then brought the welding simulator to the school in December and decided to take their work one step further with the camp last week.

“This group here, it took a day or two just to get over their anxiety, but, I tell you, they got fully engaged and, as you can see, they’re busy. It’s hard to keep ahead of these students,” he said.

McKen has taught deaf welders before, he said, and the challenges they face haven’t prevented them from becoming excellent metalworkers.

“It depends what you’re working on, but there’s a certain sound that you know you’re getting the proper weld, the proper distancing for your electrode or it could be for your MIG welder,” McKen said, “so they have that disadvantage, but their other two senses seem to pick up, so they make the difference and they just have to pay more attention to what they see and what they feel, and they can become really good welders.”

To give students the inside scoop on what it’s like to be deaf and work as a welder, Ironworkers Local 97 also invited one of its two deaf apprentices to come speak.

For BCSD education assistant Nici Baird, who worked as a welder for 16 years, the camp was a good introduction to the wide range of welding careers open to her students.

“I thought it was great, just to show them what’s out there and that there aren’t barriers to trades,” she said.

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