Debate and Speech Impediments by Ben Koh

Since the beginning of the year I’ve had a few words in my paradigm about debaters who are struggling with speech impediments. This never came to actualize itself or be a relevant question for me, however, until fairly recently. At Blake, I had just finished judging a round when one of the debaters asked me how much I noticed her stuttering and if I had any advice on how she should potentially improve it- which surprised me considering that I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary with her speaking. This past weekend at Scarsdale a debater I judged told me to “forgive him” for he has a bit of a stutter. In both of these cases, I nodded and said that it’s not a problem, but it begs the question of if there could be something to do to help in some way the self-consciousness of those with of speech impediments.

There are two basic causes of stuttering. The first is physical; the second is emotional. Physical typically refers to a born tendency to stutter, it could be a physical issue that appears when persons are younger. The second is emotional- where issues of stress or other environments cause speaking to become difficult. This is not to suggest that it’s just one or the other: typically these two causes exist to variant degrees and they vary from person to person.

I am a stutterer.

In my case, I stuttered mostly when under emotional stress. My everyday speaking seemed nearly stutter free, except for debate rounds. My cross examinations would be clear in my speaking, but the speeches themselves tended to not be.

Everybody stutters to an extent. If you look for it in normal speech you’ll find a few bits of unintentional repetition here and there- but having a speech impediment is different. Stuttering is an impediment that becomes so frequent that it becomes impossible to not notice. To clarify, stuttering and speech impediments vary from person to person. In my case, I would get stuck on phrases and certain sounds typically. I would stop and try to start over again but the muscles in my throat become locked to the point that I would just keep machine gunning out the same letter or same phrase. In my worst experiences, I was so tense that I was unable to speak at all: my vocal cords were so tight that it literally became impossible to utter anything.

The advice given is typically to stop and take a breath- but, while well intentioned, that’s no small request. The pressure to go fast and the need to get through all the arguments on the flow relentlessly frustrates when you have a minute left at the end of the 1ar and you aren’t saying anything. The fear of debating goes beyond the desire to win and the content of the arguments, beyond the intimidation of opponents and adaptation to judges. It goes further, the question before every round becomes “will I stutter?”

My sophomore year was like a lot of debaters’ sophomore years: competitively tough. Admittedly at times I used my speaking issue as my own explanation for my lack of success, but it wouldn’t help when at Berkeley Round 1 I would get something like 19 speaker points: the ballot specifically noted my inability to speak and how I would need to practice speaking fluently or something like that. I can’t take offense to it today; it was just ignorance is all.

I haven’t “solved this problem,” but I’ve luckily been able to lessen its frequency. I went to a speech therapist from my sophomore to senior year (if you live near West LA and want a suggestion, please let me know). I started to meditate and tried to figure out how to debate slower. I stopped sitting down in rounds and got a table to help the flow of breath. But in truth at times I felt like giving up (or I did give up) in my career. I find it pretty hilarious now considering how much I miss it.

This article is not intended to be a sob story though. I’ve never experienced something that gets me as excited as debate. Even at those tournaments where I was worried about my stuttering, I always preferred to be there than at home preparing for the next weekend. Rather, this is my experience in a speaking activity while at times being unable to speak.

I hope that there’ll be a point at which debaters will not have to fear for their speaker points or be so self-conscious about stuttering as much as they do now. Rather, we should all play a role for this community within the community.

The first is for coaches. I was fortunate enough to have coaches that were very concerned with me and whom I felt shared in my losses. I had many, but I want to discuss my experiences with two. My coach Mr. Michael Overing was in frequent contact with my speech therapist, and I always felt he was truly invested in my success, even when my success at times seemed dim. Whenever he saw me debate, I never felt as if I was judged as a stutterer. There were weeks where stuttering clearly was the cause of a loss but he would talk and treat me as a debater, not as one with an impediment. In every RFD of every practice round he saw, the criticism was not of my speaking, but of the arguments on the flow. I felt like a real debater, which wasn’t always easy. My coach Tim McHugh was there when I wished to vent my frustration. He listened. At tournaments when I felt like my difficulty competing would never let me even break at a tournament (which in my junior year I only did once at a very local tournament), I knew that Tim knew I could. That was comforting.

I believe that coaches should do two things. 1) They should treat their debaters as competitors. There were many times where I felt like I was just recognized as being the kid at Loyola who can’t speak. My coaches reminded me that I was more than that. I was a debater. 2) Coaches should ensure that their debaters know how much they care and that they are aware of the issue. It’s the fact that my coaches had my case in mind that helped me feel less alone.

The second is for judges. I’m not going to go as far as to suggest that every judge should talk to every stuttering debater on the issue, but at least for me I was always intimidated and sometimes fearful of judges. Ironically though, it was a judge at the time who gave me hope when I was the closest to giving up on this activity.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Rebar Niemi. I was incredibly lucky to teach several electives with him at NSD this summer, and to now coach a successful debater with him. My junior year I was pretty close to quitting the activity: it was just an issue of a lack of competitive success and what felt like nothing really changing in my speaking. At Alta, Rebar judged me against a very successful debater where I was crushed: it was the second time he had judged me. At that tournament I went 3-4, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, and as I stood around the posted doubles panels talking about whatever it was, I didn’t expect a judge let alone somebody as respected as Rebar to talk to me. I’ll never forget it, but it was the first time I’ve felt like somebody outside of my close circle really believed that I could do well in this activity even with my speaking. He told me that this activity won’t be easy for me: my story wasn’t going to be the same as others, but I should not give up, that one day things are going to just click for me, and that’s when I’ll realize how strong I really am.

I interpreted it as pity at first. I was used to people telling me “You can do it!” and lines like that and I was admittedly tired of it. It was thinking about Rebar’s talk and how he did not have to reach out that sparked my fully processing of what he said. I still hold that experience to this day.

In light of this experience, I’ve tried to make an effort to facebook message debaters who are maybe struggling competitively, but have impressed me. That’s not to say I’ve reached out to everybody (nor that everybody I’ve tried to reach out to has been having competitive problems), but I hope that I can at least do something similar to what Rebar did for me. To clarify, I don’t advocate that everybody tells every debater struggling with their speaking a line of advice. But, I do believe judges should let debaters know that they’re noticed. So many judges were competitors themselves. Even beyond those that have impeded speech, judges shouldn’t be distant figures. They should make people feel comfortable around them. I had a list of judges who I always preferred on the purse basis that I always felt comfortable debating in front of them. I knew those judges cared about more than the money they’re making: they really care about the kids they judge.

The third is for fellow competitors. I always looked for a role model in my competitive experience, and my role model was my friend Kyle. I searched for evidence that I really could do this or even have a winning record at a tournament. There’s not much to read about or hear about people who struggled with speaking that also debate, and so hearing that Kyle broke at Stanford intrigued me. It made me feel hopeful seeing him win an outround. I honestly never thought it was possible. It was talking to him about the mutual issue that made me feel as if I had a companion in this fight. I realized that I’m not the only one- that was awesome.

Stuttering silences but if you are a debater who is struggling with the issue (or other speech impediments) then speak out. You should not be embarrassed. Obviously you don’t have a choice in it. If you are a debater with a speech impediment and you see another struggling with the same issue then make yourself known! It means more for a commiserating stranger to make an effort. Don’t be afraid.

In an activity built on speaking, a speaking impediment is hard to endure. I will not claim that my experience is wholly encompassing of the experience of others who have stuttered (though of course there are other speech impediments as well), but this is my story and how my competitive experience went. Coaches, judges, and students should respectfully be there for their students. A speech impediment does not mean that a debater is any less competitive. The content of the RFD should not have to depend upon speaking. But, this article should not suggest that I avoided all problems related to my speaking. At Berkeley my senior year, the RFD of one of my prelim losses went something along the lines of  “I know you stutter, but I negate” (the words maybe were not in that order).

It was at those times though that I remembered the lessons and the comfort I got from my coaches, judges, and friends. Debate is fun. No matter the struggle and obstacle on the way, there is a basic idea that there are few things as fun as standing in a room with a Radioshack timer and overpriced pens.

Don’t give up- remember why you’re debating in the first place.

If you want to contact me, please message me on facebook for the fastest response. I will be at Harvard this weekend. Please don’t feel hesitate to talk.