Four students — two from Gallaudet University and two from the United States Naval Academy — made history Thursday night by participating in an unprecedented debate hosted by Gallaudet’s Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA). In front of a packed crowd at the Gallaudet University Field House, they competed in mixed teams, each with one representative from both schools and using a combination of American Sign Language and English. Their mission was to tackle the question: Should deaf people be allowed to serve in the United States military?

Gallaudet’s Trent Mora and United States Naval Academy midshipman Jason Santiago took the affirmative stance, maintaining that combat has evolved with technology, making it possible for deaf people to perform effectively in more roles. Arguing against the inclusion of deaf service members were Gallaudet’s Lexi Hill and United States Naval Academy midshipman Roy Choi, who asserted that auditory communication remains vital in combat zone scenarios.

A pre-debate poll of those in attendance, which included more than 100 high school students from deaf schools and programs nationwide, found that 73 percent were in favor of deaf people in the military, and only 27 percent were opposed. So when Hill stepped onto the stage for her opening remarks, she acknowledged that she was taking on an unpopular stance. “I like to challenge myself, and I like to view perspectives that are varying and different than mine. I think that’s the whole point of debate,” she explained.

Hill and Choi relied on storytelling to make their case, starting with the scene around them in the Field House. “USNA and Gallaudet have come together and worked tirelessly for this event and coordinated CART, interpreters, CDIs, and still, regardless of all of that effort, something will be lost in translation this evening,” Hill noted. “Now imagine that situation in the fog of war.” They asked the audience to envision ships that have lost their engines, bunkers that have been attacked, and other catastrophic incidents.

Trent Mora and Lexi Hill with USNA debaters after the debate.

For Mora and Santiago, the aim was to separate the ideas of communication and hearing, and challenge the status quo. One idea they suggested was the creation of all-deaf units. “While they focused on limitations, we focused on what’s possible,” Mora said in his closing argument. “Deaf people are used to adapting.”

They also spotlighted the example of Keith Nolan, who was in attendance for the debate. Nolan had wanted to continue his family tradition of serving in the military. But despite a sterling record in the first two levels of an ROTC program, he was barred from continuing solely because he is deaf. He has dedicated the past 12 years to advocacy work, which he presented about at the event. That included the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act, a bill introduced in 2015 by Congressman Mark Takano (D-Ca.), who addressed the debate audience via a video message.

The judges — Heather Artinian, Latham & Watkins attorney, Megan McArdle, columnist at The Washington Post, and Dr. Carolyn Washington, retired U.S. Army colonel — praised both sides, but decided the event in favor of Hill and Choi for their approach and use of evidence. A post-debate poll also showed audience opinions had shifted to 57 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.

Everyone agreed that the most important outcome was not determining a winner. It was watching how these impressive young people worked together. “This debate tonight is about celebrating your joint commitment to fostering a deeper understanding between students,” said Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn), a public member of the Gallaudet Board of Trustees. “Having this type of inclusive debate is so important, I can’t stress it enough, to making our democracy strong for all of us.”

In Gallaudet University President Roberta J. “Bobbi” Cordano’s closing remarks, she reiterated the significance of the event. “We have witnessed history here tonight,” she said, expressing her gratitude to CDDA Executive Director Brendan Stern, ’06, who is also the debate team coach. “For our students and what we saw on display this evening, thank you for the vision that you have brought to this work.”

The night also featured a rousing performance of the National Anthem by Warren “Wawa” Snipe, ’94, and awards for the three graduating seniors on the Gallaudet debate team: Hill, Romel Thurman (who moderated the debate alongside JAC Cook, ’96), and Aubrey Moorman.

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