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Lincoln coach pushes for inclusion in high school debate world

“Bradley and Victoria” – it showed up on my calendar like an invitation from a Hamptons power-couple. But this meeting is emblematic of an intention I’ve harbored since my job title shifted to Community Engagement Director – engaging people from the community at large in disability issues, in recognizing both the needs and the intrinsic value of people with disabilities in everyday life.

“Bradley” is Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director here at Disability Rights Nebraska. He shares my enthusiasm for youth engagement in civics, and channels that into his role as Debate Coach for Omaha Westside High School. Through that role, he introduced me to his colleague, 2021 National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) James M. Copeland High School Coach of the Year, Victoria Freeman.

Victoria has a disability. She noticed, in working with the students in her capacity as the Debate Coach for Lincoln High, that the debate world was pretty unforgiving of both participants and judges if a person had a disability that interfered with following what can be a speed-oriented event, where people deliver their arguments at speeds that can reach or exceed 400 words per minute. She also noticed that, at live events, the norm of standing while delivering one’s argument was problematic for students with disabilities or even sports injuries, causing them to be unfairly penalized for something that had little or no bearing on the substance of debate. And, locations the meets were held at were often not accessible if team members experienced any sort of mobility or sensory challenge.

Victoria’s passion for inclusion led her to both initiate and subsequently lead the NSDA’s Persons with Disabilities Coaches’ Caucus. To borrow language from the nomination for the Coach of the Year award submitted by fellow coach and recognized debater Aarron Schurevich, her work on the Coaches’ Caucus has helped to “foster a more supportive and accepting space for students, judges, and coaches with disabilities who are often otherwise overlooked or outright ignored…Victoria has been steadfast in pushing for things to be improved so that it is more readily possible for tournaments to accommodate people with disabilities. She’s written a series of articles for Rostrum, the official magazine of the National Speech & Debate Association, that required her to be open and vulnerable in a way that few coaches are asked to be vulnerable, and through her advocacy and her work with the NSDA, things are slowly but surely changing to improve our community’s awareness of and willingness to honor the accommodation needs of those within our activity.”

Her contributions and achievement in this area were also recognized by the Legislature with a Legislative Resolution introduced by Senators DeBoer and Pansing-Brooks.

So here’s to you, Victoria Freeman, for choosing this path and doing the work to make inroads for inclusion and equity for students of all abilities in the world of debate. It may not happen overnight, but because of your work and your courage, those students – and judges – with disabilities stand a better chance of being understood, accepted and included in their larger communities at the end of the day.

Sharon T. Ohmberger is the Community Engagement Director at Disability Rights Nebraska and has worked with the organization since 1998.