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The second annual Gallaudet Distinguished Debate, held Wednesday, March 6, considered the proposition, “Hearing people should be allowed to teach ASL.” Spectators crowded into Ole Jim to watch Dr. Octavian Robinson, ’02 & G-’04, Associate Professor of Deaf Studies, argue in favor, while Lexi Hill, ’23, Gallaudet Debate assistant coach, took the opposing position. The event — hosted by the Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA) and sponsored by the Chief Bilingual Office, Faculty Governance, and the Deaf Studies Incubator — was the continuation of a series designed to present a clash of ideas between scholars who debate in ASL.

This subject is an important one to tackle because it is so connected to audism, says Dr. William Ennis, ’00, faculty chair. Hill notes that, “both of us came into the debate with a mutual understanding that being qualified was not the issue here but rather the identities and positions within the Deaf community that are based on hearing status.” A pre-debate poll showed that the audience was strongly against the proposal: 76 percent no, 24 percent yes.

For Robinson, this debate was an opportunity to have fun. “I enjoy the challenge of taking the unpopular position,” he says. Plus, he appreciated the spirit of the debate, which supports CDDA’s mission to encourage constructive disagreement on campus and beyond. “I think in an increasingly polarized environment, it’s important to model the ability to have discussions about controversial topics with an openness to understanding multiple perspectives and to be able to articulate our positions without demeaning others. It’s a good exercise in critical thinking and persuasive communication,” Robinson adds.

A woman in a green shirt signs on a stage. She is flanked by two men who are looking intently at her. There is a third man looking at her from the steps up to the stage. A large audience sits facing the other direction so they can see the action on stage.
This year’s Gallaudet Distinguished Debate featured Dr. Octavian Robinson (far left) facing off against Lexi Hill (wearing green).

Robinson’s argument was bolstered by his experience as an ASL professor and program coordinator. There are simply not enough Deaf people interested or trained to teach ASL. The pragmatic reality, he explained, is that children need access to ASL and that has to be the priority. Another key point: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game (capitalism).”

Hill countered that hearing teachers lack the authenticity gained through lived experiences, which impacts the quality of ASL instruction. Plus, by taking these jobs, they are reducing economic opportunities for qualified Deaf teachers.

“I was very surprised I was able to persuade some people to shift to my perspective. I thought Lexi made a very compelling case,” says Robinson, who ended up with 30 percent of the audience, while Hill held onto 70 percent.

But both sides won over the crowd with their approach to the event, says CDDA Executive Director Dr. Brendan Stern, ’06. “Octavian and Lexi showed us all what a thought-provoking, entertaining debate in ASL could, and should, look like,” he adds.

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