“My friends would call me a bit of a comedian …”
… is how I’d start my Original Oratory, looking out at the audience with a carefully crafted smile on my face. I’m used to people staring at me -- I mean, it’s only to be expected when you’re the only competitor who uses a wheelchair in the entirety of the New Jersey circuit -- so I know how to make each glance count for something.
“... I’d even tell you the joke about the girl in the wheelchair who walks into the bar,” I’d continue, looking out at them innocently.
And then, the punchline:
“... I just haven’t figured out the walking part yet!”
And that was the moment of truth. Either I’d get raucous, astonished laughter, or a sea of horrified faces, looking at the people next to them for some clue of how they should all react to this disabled girl who was joking about things she shouldn’t.
Either way, I’d continue to the next lines of my speech, working hard to persuade the audience of my thesis: that humor is an invaluable tool which we, as humans, can employ to bridge divides and overcome adversity.
Breaking into the world of Speech and Debate was no easy task for me. It’s an environment where presentation and appearance are everything; so looking and moving differently than everyone to whom you’re being compared is a distinct disadvantage.
Or so I thought for a long time. And I was correct, to a point. But there’s more to it than that. Every time you go up in front of that room, what people see is what you project. You define their view of you and you control what you let them see. Even if you’re having a rough week, you can go into a round and act like it’s the best day of your life -- no one will know differently, because they only have access to the parts of you that you show them. You’re in charge here, so always act like it.
Since leaving high school, this is the most valuable lesson I’ve taken with me, all thanks to Speech and Debate. Anyone who has experienced going to college or entering the workforce knows the value of self-confidence and how you project yourself. Self-image is a powerful thing, and even more so when you don’t look like everyone else.
Now, this isn’t to say that after only a few tournaments I became comfortable in my own skin and confident in my abilities. It took until halfway through my sophomore year to find my niche in Speech and finally start becoming successful, and I had to fight against a culture of Forensics’ ingrained ableism to do it. Many successful Interpers I met during my Speech years, all of them able-bodied, had reached finals by appropriating the stories of disabled people in their pieces, faking an eye twitch, or a speech impediment, or physical weakness in order to elicit an emotional response of pity or comic relief from the audience. If a white competitor had decided to act out the story of a black American, lamenting the horrors of police violence and racial discrimination as if it had affected them personally, there would have been uproar. But when able-bodied students use disabled people as props, shedding a tear for how difficult it is to have a learning disability or to be an amputee, they’re given trophies. This is something that cut like a knife every time I watched an Interp round, and in order to make Speech and Debate a truly inclusive place, it needs to change.
And of course, change like this starts with us. For as long as we’re in front of an audience, we control the narrative. After I left high school, I even learned that the audience isn’t just a group of people sitting in a room who have come there to watch a speech. Your audience, my audience, our audience is anyone we can get to listen, even those who don’t want to hear us yet.
By the end of my Speech and Debate career in Extemp, Impromptu, and Original Oratory, I had the privilege to semifinal at Princeton, quarterfinal at Harvard, and double-final in the New Jersey State Championships during both my junior and senior years. But those trophies aren’t what I’ll take with me through my coming years at Georgetown University or through my future career. What I carry each day, like any former Forensicator, is an innate sense of empowerment and motivation to share my voice with the world; and that’s a gift for which I’ll be forever grateful.