Gallaudet University

Posted on May 7, 2021

College Debate Using American Sign Language and Spoken English

On April 21, Gallaudet University and George Washington University students squared off in what organizers believe was the first bilingual intercollegiate debate in which one team used American Sign Language and the other spoken English.

Image of students on Zoom during a debate using American Sign Language

Gallaudet president Roberta Cordano, who is deaf, said in remarks prior to the start of the debate that “this is about language equity, making sure that both languages are seen on par with one another, for being able to use American Sign Language to be a part of an intellectual debate,” Cordano said.

Students on both teams presented opening arguments, cross-examined each other and finished with closing arguments, all relayed through interpreters, before a panel of judges charged with evaluating them on the quality of their logic, research, and analysis. The entire competition was conducted via Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook. At the end of the night, Gallaudet was declared the winner.

“I always wanted to be part of a debate team growing up,” said Lexi Hill, a sophomore at Gallaudet and co-captain of the team, who participated in the debate. “It was too much of a hassle in the past because I had to use interpreters, and I just didn’t do it.”

The Gallaudet University debate team, the first in the university’s 157-year history, launched in the fall of 2020. It is housed within the Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA), and embodies the core values of Gallaudet University and the mission of the CDDA to develop healthy democratic skills and habits of deaf individuals by fostering disagreement, debate, and civic engagement through American Sign Language and English.

Romel Thurman, a junior and the Gallaudet debate team co-captain who served as moderator for the debate, said it was “an unprecedented experience to have a deaf and hearing team from deaf and hearing colleges meet in this way … It’s an exciting moment for us. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes of it in the future.”

Read more about this event at Inside Higher Ed and watch the debate.