UCLA's debate team captain doesn't let hearing impairment hold him back
Students sitting near UCLA undergraduate Nick Matthews in a political science or history class this quarter might notice that he listens with almost surreal intensity or that he is wearing a hearing aid in each ear. Or classmates might see that there's a stenographer in the room who is transcribing the text of the lecture so that Matthews can view it on his computer along with them.
If they guessed that Matthews has a severe hearing impairment, they'd be right. But they might never suspect that Matthews competes in the pressurized world of college debate, where understanding the rat-tat-tat-tat arguments on the fly is the name of the game and "spreading" — short for speed reading — is commonly used as a tactic.
Fact is, college debaters with hearing impairments are so rare that Matt Strawbridge, a UCLA law student who is the coach of the UCLA Speech and Debate team, says he knows of no other. Yet Matthews can debate just like anybody else, Strawbridge said.
"It's such a speaking-intensive activity, it's incredibly surprising and really impressive," Strawbridge said. "Occasionally, we'll have issues where he just can't hear and he needs to move closer or have people slow down or get clearer or louder. It doesn't happen that often, though."
This fall, Matthews took over as captain of a team that last year ranked No. 15 nationally. Team members participate through coursework in the UCLA Department of Communication Studies, which sponsors the team at local and regional competitions and some national championships. Matthews, a tall 20-year-old junior, has played an active role on the team since he arrived on campus. He is valued on the team for his thorough knowledge of current events and a willingness to dig deeply into any topic.
Matthews, who was born with hearing loss, an impairment shared by his mother and his older brother, began debating at C.K. McClatchy High School in his hometown of Sacramento. An excellent student, he chose the activity because he thought it would give him an advantage in college admissions, building highly valued skills like speaking and critical thinking and writing.
No surprise, then, that he was admitted to both UC Berkeley and UCLA. But he had already decided on UCLA after visiting the campus during his junior year at McClatchy.
"I pretty much fell in love with it right away," he said. "I liked the fact that it's urban and that it's got a lot going on. I liked the whole vibe of the campus."
At UCLA, he jumped right into an activity that now soaks up four to five hours a week for debate practice, plus 10 to 20 for research — not to mention weekend competitions. He's used to the surprise people express when they hear he is a debater.
"They think I must be deficient in some way," he said. "But I never let my hearing loss be used as an excuse for inferior performance."
That is not to say that it's not extremely challenging to participate in an activity that can be well beyond the abilities of someone with perfect hearing. Sometimes Matthews must ask opposing teams to slow down or speak up so that he can comprehend their arguments. Last year, in one round of a national championship, an opposing team refused to do so, a tactic that clearly upset Matthews.
"I literally had no clue what they were saying," Matthews said. He tossed his hearing aids on the floor in disgust and accused the other team of essentially "screaming at a wall and expecting a response" and foreclosing the possibility of true debate.
"It was one of those moments — it was really electrifying," said Tom Miller, director of forensics in the communication studies department. "We won the round, but it was more important that Nick stood up for himself and for hearing-impaired people and others who are being excluded from debate because of speed."
Matthews called it "by far the most awkward and emotionally wrenching experience" he had ever gone through in debate. But it also changed his way of thinking about debate from win–lose into an activity whose goal is to foster communication and include everyone.
Coach Strawbridge said that after this incident, Matthews seemed to open up and talk more about his disability with his fellow debaters.
"Before that, he seemed kind of shy about it," he said. "After that, he was more willing to talk about it to us. It helped us address the issues he was facing so we could really talk to him about what he was going through and help him."
Matthews credits his ability to do well in college to his parents for beginning his speech therapy even before preschool.
"When you're hearing-impaired, you do not — when you are a little kid — acquire language the way that other people normally do," he said. "So were it not for that opportunity, I certainly doubt that I would be here at UCLA, let alone debating."
A political science and history dual major, Matthews is interested in environmental and energy issues and also the idea of partisanship — where it comes from and how it affects policymaking and shapes discourse at the level of public debate.
Of his disability, he says that he sometimes wonders what his life would be like if everything else were the same but he had full hearing. Then he stops himself. It's wishful thinking.
"But also, I think that if I were not hearing-impaired, I would not be as successful as I am today," he said.
He said it gave him the extra drive to succeed and an appreciation of the opportunities he does have. Which, he said, is not to say that there are not disadvantages associated with being hearing-impaired.
"Obviously there are," Matthews said. "But if I look back, it is not something that I would trade in — for lack of a better phrase — as a person, because it has taught me valuable lessons. It's allowed me to develop as a person. It's allowed me to distinguish myself in terms of being a unique human being.
"And that is not a bad thing, that is a good thing."