‘I’d like a world where kids didn’t have to go through that’, says Disability Rights Advocate & Debater Khansa Maria

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Azhar: Hey! Welcome back to another episode of Debating404’s podcast! You’re watching Debater’s Chronicles where we look at the journeys of debaters, adjudicators and coaches, who have made a difference, not just in the context of debate.

I’m Azhar and today we have Khansa Maria with us. Let’s start things off. Khansa tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, where are you from and what do you do?

Khansa: : Hi everyone! Firstly, thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure. So as has been already mentioned my name is Khansa, I’m from Pakistan and I’m currently doing my M.Phil in Development Studies at Oxford and I’ve been debating for a number of years, erm, I think it’s been about, 7, 8, 9 years? I don’t even know how long it’s been. But yeah it’s been a while.

Azhar: Wow, that’s a long time!

Khansa: (laughs) Yes. It’s… it’s addictive, you know. Once you start, you cannot stop.

Azhar: That’s also very very true! You just don’t wanna leave anymore.

Khansa: I think, you know, you do different competitions and you decide, “I’m not gonna do this anymore,” and then can’t keep up with that.

Azhar: That is very relatable. You just can’t stick to your resolutions. 

‘I thought it would be good to be as obnoxious as that!’

Azhar: Let’s start from the very beginning actually, when did you first get into debating and why?

Khansa:  So I was in grade ten and I got into debating because I thought it would be very interesting for me to meet different people and express my opinions and just learn to be a part of the community because my brother was already a part of it and it sounded like a nice secret cup. 

I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn plus my brother did it and he sounded super fancy and made himself sound super obnoxious. And yeah, I thought it would be good to be as obnoxious as that!

Azhar: That is true. Debating does give you bragging rights. You get to learn a lot more than other people and you get to brag about it.

‘That’s magical – it draws you in.’ 

Azhar: So did you love debating from the very get go or was that passion something that you developed over time?

Khansa: No I think I did like it and I think I do love it. And you know when I started I had to work a lot cause you know, I think the way we’re told and the way we’re taught debating is different when we’re kids – it’s all about declamations.

But then you suddenly entered into this new world of parliamentary debates and British parliamentary and all of that and you realize that debating is a lot more than memorizing speeches and delivering them in the most impactful manner you know. There’s a lot more to it and I just loved thinking about different things – making up different arguments, thinking about topics in a way that I’d never thought about before. 

‘Nobody cares about your actual opinion.’

I think the most special part of debating it is that you know nobody cares about your actual opinion if you have to be an opposition you will be opposing that topic regardless of what you think what you believe in terms of, you know, your religious beliefs or political beliefs and all of that so I think that’s something very special about this activity.

And I think it’s just a very specific group of people who are passionate about it who want to learn and who want to grow and that’s magical – it draws you in.

Azhar: That is that is very very true and on that point too, I really do think that debating helps you look at things so objectively, like you said, nobody cares about your opinion you just get a side – you don’t get to pick so that does make you look at different sides of the same issue.

Khansa schools us on learning from losses

Azhar: So now I’m just going to give you the right to brag. What exactly were the highlights of your debating journey? What were your achievements?

Khansa: I mean I think my debating journey has been long. I’ve also done MUNs even though some people would say MUNs aren’t really debates but that’s another conversation for another time! I think you know there’s been a lot in terms of winning at Qatar with winning nationals, a couple of times getting the best Speaker award, winning some competitions in Pakistan. 

I think that’s secondary though – even though at that point you’re only looking at speaker tabs and speaker points and all of that and your team tabs, I think the most important thing for me was the friends that I made and just the growth that I experienced. I think that growth is unparalleled. 

I can say this for sure I have lost more than I have won and something debate teaches you is to express what you feel after those losses and then turn that into motivation for your next competition.

I think that’s the most important thing I got from it just to be ready to lose and be happy with it and then try again and then work on yourself more and be with excellent team members who you sometimes disagree with or you know who sometimes disagree with you and accepting losses and wins with them and realizing that it’s a team effort.

Azhar: Okay… that’s a very very different and unique perspective on losing debates because all the people I know, we just go all out and we just get really mad at ourselves for losing so that’s…

Khansa: That’s how it starts. That’s how I thought of it as well, especially because my mom is a South Asian mom so every time you go home after debates she will be like, “So you lost again!’ and I’m like “No, you know like that’s not how debates work!”

So just learning from that eventually you get tired of losing and you get tired of getting angry at yourself for losing. I mean plus you also have to realize that there are a lot of externalities that impact how you perform on a specific day. Obviously you could have been shipped but also there are other factors like just how you felt on a specific day, how much you knew about a specific topic and what your mood was like and all of those things which affect whether you win or lose so you look at debates or your losses from an intersectional perspective at certain point.

And, uhm, I think that really gives a lot of perspective.

Azhar: Wow, you have learned a lot from losses!

Secrets of Khansa’s success

Azhar: So what exactly are the like, other secrets of your success, so to speak: the resources that you sought help from or coaches who mentored you.

Khansa: I think, uhm, obviously before anything else I think the most important thing is just talking to your teammates, going over your strategy,  talking about what worked and what didn’t.

I was very lucky that I had a coach in my A-levels who believed in me. I could also help train my teammates because I started with a completely new team. This was my last year so I was tired of losing because I had done that in my previous years of high school obviously and I was tired of losing so I wanted to win,  you cannot do that if it’s a three people team (well five people) and you were the only one who’s spoken for a number of years.

Your partners are all new so you have to teach them on the job so to say and I think one of my best debating years was my last year because I did train that team and they later went on to win a lot of competitions after me as well so I think that was one of my best moments – just working with that team, winning competitions with them, teaching them after every speech what went wrong, helping them learn from different experiences and growing with them. I think there’s nothing that helps you learn more than training new debaters.

Azhar: Wow! Is that why you decided to become a coach?

On becoming a coach, ‘I always liked teaching.’

Khansa: Yeah, uhm, I think that was a part of it but I always liked teaching and I really enjoy talking to, you know,who are starting debates or just helping them with whatever I know and I know that what I know isn’t a lot but whatever I do know and whatever I’ve learned – I think it’s important to share that.

Azhar: Okay so what was a typical day in your life like when you were a debate coach?

Khansa: So I started coaching pretty early as well when I was in high school but I think I did it properly when I was in my undergrad.

A typical day was just me making sure that I did my university work on time, I had some other jobs that I was juggling so making sure I did that work and then going to my camps.

So the way it works with QatarDebate (a debate organization in Qatar) is that you don’t necessarily go to the same schools every time because they have a roster of coaches and you know they sort of shuffle us around (or they used to when I used to work there).

So I think it was just a different experience because you would have a short amount of time maybe you’ll be meeting these kids for the first time but you also need to have them prepared for prepared rounds or also need to help them with argumentation or something of the sort so you’d need to sort of squeeze those introductions, make sure that your friends with the kids and then make sure that you areE helping them learn something.

It was mostly me just running after classes. I’m looking over cases and my notes on my phone while I was in my taxi and just reaching there talking to them and making sure that I did what felt right for those kids as opposed to repeating my strategies.

Azhar: I think you did a good job glorifying the job of a debate coach. It seems like something that I would really want to do!

Khansa: I think you should! I think it teaches you more than actually debating. 

You can be a doctor by day, debate coach by night.

Azhar: Talking about debate coaching as a profession, since you’ve studied Bachelor in Foreign Science a top-rank university in Qatar, that is Georgetown University and then now you’re studying Development Studies at Oxford so do you think there are some courses or degrees that sort of align with the skills that you gain from debate and if somebody likes debate a lot and they want to make that their profession, what do you think are some career paths that are suitable for them

Khansa: So your question is about someone who wants to make debating their profession right? You know what’s really magical about debating is that you can be anyone: you can be a doctor, you can be an engineer or you could be someone studying political science and you can be excellent at it.

I think what it calls for is a more holistic understanding of arguments and you know the way that you think about different things the way that you approach the world.

Obviously the amount of stuff that you read is important. I think you could do anything – you could be a doctor and you could debate at the side or coach students on the site.

I know people who do that and they’re excellent coaches. You could be studying psychology and you could coach kids. Or you could come make debate your permanent job and just work for a national or international organizations that work to spread debate. Debates also make amazing consultants. A lot of debaters go into consultancy so that’s always an option.

People are interested in public policy jobs. Oh yeah I’ve heard law is a very common trajectory as well. The point is, you can do anything after debates because the kind of skill set that it gives you is not restricted to policy or law or civil service. 

It really teaches you how to think and opens your mind to different ideas and also teaches you to work under time constraints, work with the team, learn to skim read, learn to listen to debates on two-speed on YouTube.

So you know it’s just the kind of skills that it gives you or the kind of mindset that it gives you.

Azhar: Yeah you could be a doctor during the day and a debate coach or by night sort of thing right?

Khansa: Yep I know people like that and they are amazing coaches and amazing debaters.

Let’s be honest about debate as a profession

Azhar: Okay… so would you encourage people to make debating like a profession or at least a side-hustle, from your own experience or is it just as good as any other hobby? Because I think we can check that box: everyone who’s in debate is passionate about debate so the only thing that we have to look at now are things like earning potential or salaries now, so what’s your opinion?

Khansa: Here is my thing: I don’t think you should have anything in life which really drags you in without any ways out and I know that a lot of us (and I know I’ve done that as well) get really dragged into this world and obsessed with debates, so to say, and forget that there’s a real world out there. 

It’s all good for you to go to competitions every weekend and also debate throughout the week but realistically how many of you will make good money when you graduate or when you finish university?

How many of you will end up working for international or local organizations that promote debating because that’s a very niche industry right? There are definitely lots and lots more debaters out there than jobs for debaters so don’t make debating your entire life. Don’t make debates impact your personal relationships – that cannot lead to good things!

The relatable realities of a debater ;-;

But yeah definitely do it – pursue it but also realize what’s your learning curve for debates. If you think that there’s a point where you are getting stagnant or where you’re getting too bogged down by how many speaker points you get, step back.

Just make sure that you know your own limits with it. Then it’s not winning every competition or reaching – I don’t know – WUDC finals or WSDC finals, [they’re] not more important than your own mental health and is certainly not more important than your future so if you need a certain internship or exam to pass or reach a certain place, focus on that.

Learn from debating, Take from it what you need. But remember that there’s a lot more to life than which judge voted against you

Azhar: I think a lot of beginner and intermediate debaters can relate to that a lot because usually the week just before any tournament and the week just after a debate tournament are the most hectic and the most draining and the most exhausting times of our lives ever. We completely derail, completely off track. Have you ever experienced that?

Khansa: I think I have because in the Pakistan debating circuit (obviously not the largest but) we did have competitions every weekend and so you went to competitions every weekend, you had classes, you had your internships and whatnot, and then you had debate camps throughout the week. So half of my time was spent debating. 

I think a lot of people – it impacted their, you know, social life – it impacted their family life, you don’t want all your friends to be debaters… There’s nothing wrong with that but you need to diversify your interests, you need to nurture different parts of your mind and your existence in general.

Debate is a huge part of it but is not the only part of it. Go out. Meet different people. Meet different perspectives and engage with them, learn from them. Debating communities often become a bubble and just don’t get sucked into it.

‘Life takes you in different directions.’

Azhar: Okay now I’m just gonna divert a bit and ask you something a little bit more personal. So where do you see yourself in the future in terms of your professional goals? You have studied public policy… I mean development studies and foreign service, so where do you see yourself in the future?

Khansa: You know that’s a really good question because that’s something I’m contemplating these days and though oh I used to be one of those people with a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan and a 15 year plan and a backup plan and a Plan B and plan C and plan Z, I’ve realized that life takes you in different directions that you plan for and so it’s important to have those plans and it’s important to have those goals and dreams but it’s also very important to stay flexible and open to the opportunities that come for you.

So I think I am very open to opportunities that come for me right now and I want to see where life takes me but I know that a lot of my work focuses on disability development and/or gender development and I think I would like to keep with that focus for public policy, academia, etc. 

I see myself working broadly in these fields: International Development, public policy, academia.

‘I’d like a world where kids didn’t have to go through that’

Azhar: On that point, you are a passionate advocate for the rights of the disability community. Tell us about your story. What motivated you to start advocating for the rights of the disability community?

Khansa: I was born blind and I have experienced what it means to live with a disability particularly within South Asia and the reality requires a lot of work. There are a lot of stigmas that we need to get rid off, there are a lot of logistical barriers to living your most productive lives as a disabled individual and I think that it’s important to get rid of those barriers and get rid of those stigmas and that’s something that I’d like to work towards and obviously I’ve encountered a lot of that on a personal level and I think I would like a world in which kids did not have to go through a lot of that. So I think that’s where my advocacy comes from. 

Azhar: That did motivate you to start your organization called Hope for Tomorrow. Tell us a little bit about that organization. 

Khansa: So Hope for Tomorrow basically focuses on capacity building and raising awareness. We do this on multiple levels: obviously we have social media campaigns, we go to different institutions talk to, for instance, high school students and all of that stuff but then we work one-on-one to provide career counseling, provide any support that people need to for instance purchase certain kind of equipment – those kinds of things if that will make things more accessible for them or make it more inclusive.

That’s just a very short summary of what we do. We also have various levels of parental support including support groups for parents, platforms where parents can come in are ask questions, reach out to people who’ve been through stuff, and also reach out to adults with disabilities who’ve been successful in whatever they wanted and sort of can guide them through it.

‘There’s very little that has been done’

Azhar: Keeping in mind that, like you said, there are certain stereotypes against people with disabilities and these stereotypes sort of vary in terms of their intensity for example maybe in India and Pakistan it’s different, in South Asia specifically they might be different, and in Qatar and the UK they might be different. 

And I think you must have experienced all its different shades being in different communities as well. So keeping that in mind, what do you think is left to be done and how do you want to tackle those issues with Hope for Tomorrow? 

Khansa: I think before anything I want to acknowledge my privilege: in my family I had a lot of support when I lived in Pakistan. When I was in Qatar I was studying at Georgetown and a lot of privilege came along with studying in this American University in the heart of the Middle East. And then here in the UK, obviously there’s a lot of privilege that comes with being a Rhodes scholar and being at Oxford so I do want to acknowledge that reality before anything else. 

In terms of what needs to be done I think there’s a lot that needs to be done because there’s very little that has been done. We need to raise awareness. We need to tell people about what they need to do to make things inclusive and what universal design looks like for the disability community.

But I think most of all we need to empower people with different kinds of disabilities from different backgrounds to tell their stories to tell what works for them and to be able to, you know, achieve any goals they have because they have the logistical support that they need.

I do realize that we cannot bring policy change or whatever overnight to transform these realities of discrimination but at the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we can do is bring people with disabilities on these tables and give them a seat, give them a perspective.

But more than giving them a perspective, give them the ability to make some change through that perspective or through that voice rather than merely having tokenistic efforts. 

Azhar: So there’s a long way to go and we’re taking it step by step?

What it means to be a Rhodes Scholar

Khansa: Absolutely! I agree. 

Azhar: Also you mentioned the Rhodes scholarship. Tell us a little bit about that.What is it? I’ve never heard of the Rhodes scholarship actually. What is it about and what does it take to get a Rhodes scholarship?

Khansa: So uh basically the Rhodes scholarship is given to students who want to study at the University of Oxford. It’s given to different amounts of students from different places. It’s the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and, you know, there’s an entire application process that you have to go through. 

It’s basically people who want to engage with the world and want to change it in a certain capacity – whose focus is service. And there are different amounts of Rhodes scholars from every country or, well, not exactly every country, but most of them, and there is a global scholarship for countries that don’t have a Rhodes scholarship.

Azhar: That’s interesting 

Khansa: There’s a lot to it and I really condensed what it is being a Rhodes scholar but yeah in the interest of time I think…

Azhar: It does seem like a really commendable and reputable scholarship – like something that’s a big deal.

Khansa: uhm yeah I think it is (laughs).

‘I can guarantee you – there are a billion things that you can do to make things inclusive.’

Azhar: Also the other day I saw your Facebook post about, like, to summarize that, it was about supplementing your prayers with actions. I don’t think it was that recent, it was kind of old. You said that we shouldn’t tell people with disabilities that they have been compensated with other skills or other blessings or we shouldn’t be attributing their fate to God or luck or something like that, right? So what is your message to other people? What do you think we should be doing to change that?

Khansa: I think it’s easy to say that policymakers need to change stuff or schools need to change whatever and those things are certainly important but it’s more important for us to change what we can change, so for instance, if you have a restaurant, make sure that your restaurant is accessible.

If you have a podcast, make sure that your podcast is accessible for people with disabilities. So whatever capacity that you work in, make sure that that capacity itself is inclusive, or you make your efforts inclusive rather than depending on someone else to do it or rather than telling people to, you know, pray or just be happy with their luck in life.

Azhar: That is true…

Khansa: We just usually end up talking a lot about what should be done without, you know, instead of doing things ourselves, because everyone can do something on an individual level regardless of what you do, regardless of what your career is, whether your student or whoever you are there is, I can guarantee you – there are a billion things that you can do to make things inclusive ranging from things as simple as putting optimistic descriptions when you put posts on Facebook or adding closed captions on your videos. There is so much you can do. You just need to think about it.

Azhar: It’s either that most people are not aware of things like that or they just find it more convenient to like to blame policymakers that do things.

Khansa: Yeah so I think it’s a combination of both of them but also we’re living in the day and age of Google so I think we need to take the onus of educating ourselves as opposed to depending on someone else to do it because there is a lot of emotional labor involved in that as well.

To the people with disabilities.

Azhar: What is your message to people who have disabilities and particularly if they want to get into debating and they’re probably discouraged due to their disabilities?

Khansa: I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s not the disabilities that discourage people – it’s the attitude of those around them in most instances and I think my message is more for those around those people: to encourage them, to uplift them and to give them the ability to participate in these exclusive elitist spaces.

And for people with disabilities my message is just to keep trying to look for people who can be their allies even if you don’t see anyone around, you maybe look online. I’m sure you’ll find people who are ready to mentor you who are ready to guide and support and it certainly isn’t easy but it’s definitely doable.

And if you decide that you don’t want to do it it’s completely fine because it’s not for everyone, everyone has different preferences and choices.

Debating and disabilities

Azhar: Okay, do you have, like, any other ideas about how debate can be more friendly towards people with disabilities? Like you said, you can reach out online to people who can mentor you. Are there any other ways in which we can make debate more accessible?

Khansa: As of right now we’re not doing a lot to make it accessible anyways. Our competition venues aren’t accessible. We don’t ensure that there is a, you know, closed captioning or sign language interpretation. We don’t give people, you know, the ability to enter these places because they’re just so exclusive. And right now there isn’t much that’s being done so it’s not a question of what else can we do it’s a question of what we aren’t doing and that’s mostly everything at this point in some instances.

Obviously online competitions did make it better because a lot of it increased access and Zoom allows for people to use closed captioning and all of that but that’s just a very small chunk of work. There’s a lot more that needs to be done and I’m hesitant in giving specific directions because different people with different disabilities have different requirements and different accommodations that they need and even if you find other blind people that does not mean that their requirements should be the same as mine.

So I think it’s more important to make sure that you ask everyone individually what they need and I know that that might be idealistic of me to suggest but I think we do that anyways to cater to different kind of audiences within debates and I think once inclusivity and accessibility becomes the norm, that – it really helps. But on another level, I think it’s important to realize that right now our outreach is not targeting people with disabilities

There was a point at which we realized that our outreach was not targeting a lot of women or LGBTQ community and we did a lot to sort of remedy that and there’s a lot that we need to do because those spaces still aren’t inclusive or accessible enough for women or people from other communities, so yeah, we need to follow similar strategies for this and at least start by making our spaces inclusive, welcoming people with disabilities, doing a lot of outreach.

Azhar: Okay, I think I-I, like it’s a wonderful insight. I mean, I never even thought of the fact that people who have the same disability would have different needs and that there are different sections within the disability community like women and LGBTQ community would need to be catered to as well.

Khansa: I mean, intersectional identities always exist and it’s important to recognize how we can cater to them but more than anything else: letting them guide the conversation.

Azhar: So there’s a long way to go, again.

Khansa: Yep.

Azhar: Thank you very much Khansa for this really inspirational insight from your side! I’m pretty sure it motivated a lot of debaters as well as people with disabilities to take to debating. So let us know your thoughts on this episode of Debaters Chronicles. Let us know if you have any ideas on what you think can make debating accessible to people with disabilities in the comments section down below and we’ll see you next time in another episode!