MSUToday
Published: Feb. 7, 2020

MSU debate team leads the way, inclusive forum for hearing impaired student

Contact(s): Jocelyn Tucker University Communications tucker90@msu.edu, Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu, Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore Honors College office: (517) 35-2326 jacks174@msu.edu

At the forefront of debate technology and inclusion stands the Michigan State debate team. 

In January 2020, MSU partnered with debate teams from Indiana University, University of Michigan and University of Minnesota to experiment with a series of online scrimmage debates that could eventually provide more inclusive forums for collegiate debaters. 

The scrimmage came to fruition as part of an effort to increase accessibility for students with hearing deficits. 

Nolan Hooper, a freshman in computer science, joined the MSU debate team this year, but on one unique condition. He wanted to be a member who does not compete. 

The MSU head debate coach, Will Repko, honored Hooper’s request and limited his role to research in preparation for competitions. 

After some time, Repko and Hooper grew comfortable with each other and Repko saw Hooper was capable of more than research behind the scenes; he decided to broach the subject. 

Repko recognized Hooper’s motivation and questioned why he didn’t want to compete. 

Nolan explained that he was worried he could not follow live, in-person debates due to hearing challenges. This got Repko thinking.  

Repko knows all too well about accommodating hearing impairments. His 2-year-old daughter was born without a right ear. 

“As I began to learn more about hearing-related work-arounds for my daughter and, as I began to learn more about the ways Nolan uses Bluetooth and headphone devices, the more I began to consider possible ways for the team to experiment with novel opportunities that might allow Nolan to participate as a competitor,” Repko said.

Repko knew he needed Hooper’s permission and confirmed interest to move forward with his experiment. 

“I have always been most concerned that Nolan feels comfortable with the technology and with the trial runs at hand,” Repko said. 

After receiving Hooper’s green light, Repko contacted MSU IT and leaned on Hooper’s experience using Bluetooth and headphone devices. 

They began experimenting with the help of MSU IT and the team’s Big 10 partners and, eventually, held weekend scrimmage debates using Zoom.com, headphones and technology equipment in the MSU Debate office.  

Hooper successfully completed scrimmages using volume controls via Bluetooth headphones and the use of his hearing aids.

“I feel that this format works, but it was slightly jarring to have to transition between headphones and hearing aids,” Hooper said. “I think this will likely be remedied with more exposure to the format though.”

MSU debate is already looking to be at the forefront of online policy debate options through their summer camp and scrimmages, and this new technology affirms that they are headed in the right direction. 

“Our Big Ten peers are eager to have scrimmages and online competitions of this sort,” Repko said. “But, more broadly, there is definitely a ‘brick-and-mortar’ only crowd.”

Hooper and Repko agree that online debates will not replace the need for in-person, brick-and-mortar debates, only enhance it. 

“The potential here might be to increase ‘access’ in a different sense — namely that we could provide lower-cost outreach and instruction for high school and college students that want to learn the game of debate but may not always have the time or resources to travel across the nation and visit our campus,” Repko said. 

While the team’s immediate goal is to qualify for the National Championships at James Madison University in March, they will continue using the online scrimmages as practice. 

The team hopes for the online scrimmage format to be sanctioned as formal competitions for the 2020-21 season.