As Speech and Debate director Cindy Phu and head coaches Allan Axibal-Cordero and Jay Arntson were breaking down the syllabus, explaining events, and outlining upcoming tournaments on the first day of class, student Laura Davila listened nervously while already deciding when to drop. Her plan of escape was interrupted once introductory icebreakers started and she was required to introduce herself.
“Hi, I’m Laura, and I’m blind,” she said. “So if I bump into you, it’s not on purpose. Well, maybe it is. But you’ll never know.”
As she said this, Room C103 drowned in a sea of uncontrollable laughter, and students knew that it was going to be an interesting semester with sassy Davila.
Davila lost her sight in a firearm accident when she was six years old. Though she was born and raised in East Los Angeles, she always went to schools out of the district because the schools surrounding her could not accommodate her disability.
“You would think these public institutions would [be able to] accommodate all of these disabilities,” she said. “I don’t understand why it’s not required for all schools.”
She graduated John Marshall High School in 2013, then attended an independent living skills program for the blind and visually impaired. She would later enroll at PCC in Spring 2015 as an English major with an emphasis in creative writing, originally intending to be a novelist.
However, once Davila swept a first place victory at the inaugural PCC Watson Lancer Intramural Speech Tournament back in Spring 2016, her interests changed as she started to learn more about herself.
Davila was enrolled in Axibal-Cordero’s Argumentation and Debate class in Spring 2016, and was entered to perform a humorous persuasive speech on the deconstruction of myths people have regarding visually-impaired individuals. The speech was based on her experiences at PCC, where students and professors were afraid to approach her because of her disability.
“People would either treat me like a baby and monitor what I was doing, or they would just ignore me completely and think I can only help myself,” Davila explained.
Axibal-Cordero and Arntson created the intramural tournament for public speaking and argumentation students with no prior competition experience. The participants were entered by their speech professor and first place winners would receive $100.
“The speech department offers over 80 sections of public speaking classes and 10 sections of argumentation and debate classes per semester, so this tournament was a means [of] giving back to the community, recruiting new talent, and giving students an opportunity to compete in a low-stakes environment,” Phu explained in an email to the Courier.
Axibal-Cordero saw that tournament as the pinnacle of what revealed Davila’s potential. Several of his talented students were competing against Davila, one being current Forensics member Dilan Wijesinghe. Though Axibal-Cordero pictured students like him to win, he was very impressed with Davila’s accomplishments.
“Laura started off quiet, but she was always smart, because she knew how to refute arguments,” Axibal-Cordero said. “She didn’t win because of her disability. She went through multiple judges that day, and they all saw that spark in her, and convincing that many people meant her speech was persuasive.”
“Laura was in Allan’s class with me, and we didn’t talk, so to see her open up at intramurals was great,” Wijesinghe said. “I really wanted Laura to join with me because I for sure knew I was joining next year. I mean, isn’t that more of an incentive for Laura to join?”
After much encouragement from coaches and classmates, Davila took the leap of faith and enrolled in Fall 2016. While individual events focus on acting out monologues, debates argue current political issues, and platform events compose informative speeches on political events. Davila opted to join the platform section of the team, trusting her skills in speech writing and reciting.
The first persuasive speech she wrote in the team was about schools’ and public institutions’ failure to accommodate disabled people. Davila was passionate about the issue, but modern-day research didn’t seem to be.
“While Cindy and [assistant coach] Sarah [Kwon] were helping me with my speech, the research we found was outdated because no one nowadays seems to care about what impact disabled people make,” Davila said. “It was so frustrating because in speeches, data should be from the last year. The most recent we found was from eight years ago.”
While members finished their speeches in two weeks, Davila finished hers in two months, and then she was just about ready to compete in her first competition as a Forensics member, the 2016 Griffith Invitational at Grossmont Community College. Though her speech was well-revised and rehearsed, at the last minute, Davila told Phu she did not want to participate anymore.
“Everyone’s been nice and all with helping me, they really have been looking out for me,” Davila told Phu at the time. “I just feel like such a burden for them.”
It would have been her first tournament. It would have been the first time she advocated for her disability outside of PCC. Davila was ready to throw away two months worth of a speech that was written with passion since it was an issue she believed in. Regardless of her hard work, she didn’t want her disability to be a hassle for the team to look out for during the competition.
Phu looked her in the eye, sternly implying a no. Though Davila couldn’t see it, she felt it.
“Immediately, Cindy exclaimed that I wasn’t a burden. I still remember how she told me, ‘We’re proud of you. We believe in you. You are not a burden. We’re going to help you when you need it and we have confidence in you’ and Sarah pretty much repeated that,” Davila emotionally remembered as her voice trembled. “She told me to say this myself too: ‘I believe in myself. The team believes in me. The team is proud of me. I am confident in myself.’ So then I stayed.”
Davila knew that regardless of the outcome, it was brave of her to put her best foot forward. Davila has a firm stance on believing that public institutions could do better with accommodating disabled people, and the judges agreed. It showed with the gold medal in novice persuasive speaking Davila wore home.
“I’ll never forget Cindy coming up to me saying, ‘Word had it on the street you got gold when you told me earlier you didn’t want to do it? When you didn’t think the team believed in you? When you didn’t believe in yourself? Huh? HUH?!’” Davila said.
From then on Davila erased dropping the class out of her mind and was relieved and excited to have found this comfortable and accepting group of friends on campus. She admits to not even wanting to go to one of her English classes she scheduled after Forensics because she was just having too much fun with her newfound second family.
“No one in my other classes talked to me, and I knew exactly why,” Davila said. “It’s because they see my cane and notice I’m blind, then they suddenly get scared. One of the worst things professors tell me is, ‘I didn’t expect a disabled student to be in my class.’”
Interests have bounced around throughout Davila’s academic experiences at PCC. She’s gone from a creative writing emphasis major to journalism, and almost joined the Courier because of her keen interests in political science. After joining Forensics, she found that what she was writing and talking about in speech, advocating for disability accommodation, is what she wants to do long-term.
“I might switch to political science, and make English a minor. I for sure want to transfer, somewhere around Los Angeles, so either Cal State LA, UCLA, or USC,” Davila said. “I’ve been taking so many classes [at] PCC that [have] been so interesting but I think I want to learn more about how the government works, get involved with law, then enjoy reading and literature on the side.”
While Davila has been striding with accomplishments of her own, Forensics recognized a caring, close-knit dynamic that Davila has set for the team. Teammates and coaches are grateful for what Davila has taught them since she is the first visually impaired student to ever join.
“To be honest, it wasn’t in my radar to befriend someone with a disability because I never knew how to appropriately approach them,” Forensics student Jessie Rodgers said. “Laura is truly one of my best friends. Meeting Laura has taught me a new way of meeting people different than me.”
“I never saw a blind person use a screenreader until this year, and I realized I had to do little things like say hi to her when I walk into a room because she doesn’t see me walk in,” Arntson added. “An extra step or obstacle for us is an ever-present thing for her. It’s been educational for the team.”
Beyond the new perspective on disabled people Davila has given, when asked what the team would be if Davila never joined, Axibal-Cordero did not hesitate when he answered “less sassy.”
“She uses her humor as a kind of armor, to show that you can approach her and her disability,” Axibal-Cordero said. “Her humor does get her friends. She loves irony and she’s really good at making a biting remark.”
“I would just like to emphasize that I am a first-hand victim of Laura’s sass. Not witness. VICTIM,” Wijesinghe added. “She insults me pretty much everyday.”
“Yeah, Dilan is the little brother I never had,” Davila said. “Or, never wanted. He’s so nerdy and I need to tell him that everyday.”
Davila is figuring herself out a little more each day and what career she’d like to pursue as she continues her PCC experience hanging out in the squad room, keeping up with politics, enjoying her literature and political science classes, and sassing her friends.
Teammates are grateful for their friendship with her, and coaches learned more about disability accommodation from her than what they’ve ever learned as educators. She can’t see the faces of her team, but she can see how much they’ve made her into a smarter, more confident person.
“Disabilities overall are just seen as a stigma to be afraid of, and they shouldn’t be. Everyday I’m trying to prove that I’m capable of things, I just need a little more time,” she said. “Speech is the first group of people at PCC who actually talked to me like I wasn’t blind, and I finally felt like i was one with a group instead of being the blind girl in class. For that, I will always be grateful.”