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Create a culture of awareness. 

To have a truly inclusive environment, it is important that both equity and respect become a part of the overall culture of a team, rather than an afterthought or a temporary initiative. Much of the content in this course focuses on specific strategies for engagement and mentoring students, but the initiatives to include students with disabilities will likely be unsuccessful if there is an undertone that reinforces the social barriers that students may be facing. Often, these damaging structures are replicated in ways that are unintentional—students use words or make references without understanding the history of exclusion that many individuals have faced because of a difference in ability. 

Instructor teaching two students with disabilities

More than anything else, the activity of speech and debate teaches students that their words have meaning and can make a powerful impact. Coaches can help to broaden this understanding by bringing an awareness of the ability words have to either exclude or to empower. This can happen on a number of different levels within the activity. First, coaches can help to bring awareness to the representation of individuals within competitive pieces. For example, interp pieces that portray individuals with mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, or other disabilities in stereotypical and two-dimensional ways can have a damaging impact for students and can create a sense of isolation for individuals with disabilities on your team. Coaches can help bring education around representation when students are choosing pieces or topics for speeches. To learn more about building three-dimensional characters, take the NSDA Learn course, Intro to Coaching: Dramatic and Humorous Interp.

In addition, it is important for coaches to build an awareness about the impact students have in their interactions with each other. When students call each other “retarded” or ritcule each other for asking for help, it sends a clear message to those on the team, even if the person being targeted was not an individual with a disability. To create an environment where everyone feels safe, coaches should set a team standard to avoid and call out ableist language. For students who regularly use these phrases as a part of their everyday vernacular, changing their verbiage may take reminders but, as it becomes a norm on the team that is consistently established, the language that individual students start to use naturally will begin to shift as well. Learn more about ableism and find a free activity for teaching about the topic.

Gentrup, S., et al. (April 2020). Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom: Teacher expectations, teacher feedback and student achievement. Learning and Instruction, 66. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095947521930177X#bib82