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To fully understand the importance of engaging and mentoring students with disabilities, let’s unpack some of the barriers students may face when trying to participate in speech and debate. The Center for Disease Control defines a barrier in the context of disabilities as:

“Factors in a person’s environment that, through their absence or presence, limit functioning and create disability. These include aspects such as:


      • a physical environment that is not accessible,
      • lack of relevant assistive technology (assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices),
      • negative attitudes of people towards disability,
      • services, systems, and policies that are either nonexistent or that hinder the involvement of all people with a health condition in all areas of life.”
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It is impossible to create an exhaustive list of all possible ways these obstacles can manifest. There are several different examples of what this may look like in a team setting outlined below. While reading through the lists, coaches should reflect on what ableist barriers they may have observed or experienced within the speech and debate community.


Many students have difficulty engaging in speech and debate because of structural barriers they face within the activity. This can happen when the impact of a student’s disability becomes prohibitive to engaging with a certain aspect of being on the team or participating in a competitive or team environment. In addition, structural barriers can occur when the physical environment where a tournament or practice is held is not accessible to all students.

Some examples of students facing structural barriers could include: 


      • A student with a physical disability that impedes their ability to walk to compete in assigned rooms on the second floor without elevator access.
      • A student with a reading disability who is not able to find evidence at an accessible reading level. 
      • A student with a visual impairment who is not able to read the printed schematics because the text is too small. 
      • A student with autism who has difficulty processing sudden changes of schedules or who may have difficulty making eye contact during a speech.
      • A student with a disability that prevents them from riding the bus with their peers, therefore missing important logistical information about the day during the morning bus ride announcements.  
      • A student with diabetes who needs to take breaks during the day to test and regulate their blood sugar that do not align with scheduled meal breaks during a tournament day.

When a student faces a structural barrier to the activity, they may face increased levels of frustration, embarrassment, or isolation. Fortunately, many ADA regulations have helped to create resources that can help to mitigate the structural barriers tied to physical locations. Coaches and educators can help to create additional bridges for students through inclusive practices and, where appropriate, accommodations. We will discuss some of these specific strategies in upcoming modules.


In addition to the obstacles that may make it physically difficult for students with disabilities to engage in speech and debate activities, many students face additional social barriers. These may be less visible or obvious than structural ones but can be just as impactful. Social barriers can be attitudinal and, in their most extreme forms, outwardly violent. These perceptions can be internalized by our students and manifest as low self-esteem or negative attitudes toward their ability to engage or succeed. 

Some examples of students with disabilities facing social barriers could include: 


      • A team culture that rewards only traditional competitive success.   
      • Limiting students to only topics or pieces that address their disability.
      • Team prep groups or group chats that purposely exclude a team member with a disability.   
      • A student with a speech impediment avoiding an event in which they are really interested because they do not feel they will be able to perform in the same way as their peers.
      • A student with a hearing impairment receiving feedback on a ballot that harshly critiques their tone of voice or volume during their performance.
      • A student with a learning disability feeling uncomfortable asking for help because they do not want to be labled as “stupid.” 
      • An environment where people use slurs like “retard” to indicate that something is uncool, stupid, or undesired.

Often, the roots of these social barriers stretch far beyond any individual; however, the culture within a team can either amplify or mitigate the obstacles that students face. Coaches and educators have an important responsibility to cultivate a community that is welcoming and fosters inclusivity. We will outline some strategies and tools to address this in upcoming modules. 

Common barriers to participation experienced by people with disabilities. (2020, September 16). Disability and Health Promotion. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.