American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      SCHOOL

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Meeting the Challenges: Changing Life for the Better through Congressional Debate

by Mirielle St. Arnaud

Mirielle St. ArnaudFrom the Editor: Extracurricular activities offer students life-shaping opportunities to hone new skills, build friendships, and take on responsibilities. Yet many blind and low-vision students struggle to find activities where they feel accepted as full participants. When I learned that Mirielle St. Arnaud had won fourth place in a statewide debate tournament in Illinois, I invited her to share her story with the readers of Future Reflections. As blind people we all make choices when we meet challenges, and Mirielle shares the solutions that have worked best for her. I would love to hear from other blind debaters and learn how they have dealt with similar challenges.

I first joined my high school's debate team a month into my freshman year. I am a member of my school's cross-country team, and one of my teammates convinced me to join debate. I vividly remember my nervousness when I showed up for my first ever practice! I didn't suspect how much debate would shape my high school experience.

I had always wanted to participate in sports when I was younger, but due to my low vision it was difficult for me to find sports that were accessible. I had been searching for a club and a community where, as a blind person, I could be on an equal footing with all of the other members. Debate gave me the opportunity I was seeking.

Congressional debate is an event in which students model the US Congress. Students write bills and argue whether or not they should be passed. Congressional debate requires a lot of research and knowledge about various topics, from foreign affairs to economic policy pertaining to taxes and wages. I have wanted to become a lawyer ever since I was little, which is one reason debate appealed to me so much.

Although debate is far more accessible than playing on a basketball team, I still needed some accommodations. Debate tournaments are held at a different local high school every month. At the beginning of each tournament, participants are sent a text message that displays which room of the high school they need to go to. It is important to get to the room quickly in order to be on time for the procedures at the beginning of a tournament. This situation posed a challenge for me, because I have to navigate through a new school and find a particular classroom in an unfamiliar environment very quickly.

Before I went to my first ever tournament, I realized I needed someone to assist me in finding my room so that I could take part in the competition the same way a sighted person would participate. I emailed my program coordinator at school and asked whether a paraprofessional could help me. Instead of providing the accommodation I requested, the program coordinator told me, "Debate tournaments might just not be something you're able to do."

This response almost deterred me from going to the tournament altogether. I had joined the debate club because I thought it would be accessible to me, and it seemed like that wasn't going to be the case. To this day I wonder what would have happened if I had accepted this rejection and elected not to go to the tournament.

I am incredibly grateful that my team's coach was able to assist me at my first competition. I ended up winning second place. My coach helped me find a paraprofessional to assist me at future tournaments, and I am very grateful for this support.

Regarding other accommodations, my teammates and coaches have been incredibly understanding and helpful. They are always willing to help me navigate through unfamiliar areas and pitch in if there is anything I am unable to do without some assistance. My coach always reaches out to tournament staff to make sure I am in the first row when tournament rounds are held in lecture halls. From the first row I don't have to walk down steps to get to the front of the room. I am a cane user, but I prefer not to use my cane in situations like these as a matter of convenience; during speeches I need to keep my hands free.

There are some things that sighted speakers can do that I find challenging. For example, most debaters keep notes on a large legal pad or in a notebook. They can write a lot of things down and refer to them when they speak. I have a very limited visual field with almost no peripheral vision, which means that I can't easily find specific parts of my speech on a large legal pad. There is simply too much space for me to fit into my small visual field.

For debate speeches I have to be able to find notes and read them very quickly, and I often adapt my speeches while the tournament is underway. I am a fluent Braille reader, but I find it most efficient to use print on a small notepad when I plan my speeches. This technique forces me to speak more extemporaneously. I have to memorize or improvise most parts of my speeches if I want to succeed.

I also tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to networking with other students at tournaments. At Illinois debate tournaments, competitors vote for the people who win second and third place. Throughout the day, debaters have to be leaders as much as possible in order to maintain a presence and make sure their competitors remember them for standing out. A big part of this leadership entails taking votes on which bills the speakers should debate in which order. I am not able to lead these votes because I can't see well enough to count how many people are raising their hands. It may sound like a small thing, but it is a lost opportunity for me to stand out to the judges and to the other competitors.

Some tournaments even offer leadership awards, which are given to those who lead the chamber most effectively. I feel it is significantly harder for me to win one of those awards. In addition, my lack of vision makes it hard for me to recognize faces. I am not always able to recognize and connect with people I have competed against at previous tournaments.

Although there are numerous things that I can't do in the same way that my sighted counterparts do them, the debate community is full of incredibly kind, smart, and accepting people. My teammates are some of my closest friends, and I am grateful for all of their support. Debate has given me so much confidence in my public speaking skills, and it has improved my confidence in many other aspects of my life as well. Currently I am a captain of my debate team. In this position I am responsible for teaching new debaters every year, which has been a very valuable experience for me. I won fourth place at the Illinois State Championship last March. I highly recommend that other blind and low-vision students get involved with debate. It truly has changed my life for the better!

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