MUN Professor Refuses to Accommodate Disabled Student

A professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland has refused to wear an FM assistive listening device to accommodate hard of hearing student William Sears, citing religious grounds for her refusal. This is not a first occurrence: Professor Panjabi also refused a similar request from a student in 1996, telling CBC News that her religious beliefs prevented her from wearing an assistive listening device to accommodate a student with a hearing impairment. CBC also notes that in 1985 she was also reprimanded for a similar complaint.

Contrary to popular misconception, assistive listening devices (ALDs) are not recording devices, but merely amplify sound. The more sophisticated devices work with digital hearing aids to deliver custom amplification tailored to a hearing aid program designed for ALDs, which is far superior to the amplification of a standard microphone. One reason for this is that the background noise picked up by hearing aids is dampened if one has an ALD program — the primary sound that one hears is the speaker’s voice. The ALD amplification cannot be heard by people who are not wearing ALD receivers or hearing aids with telecoils.

(As a lifetime user of ALDs, my personal experience is that the amplification and clarity is significantly better than a house microphone — this assessment is shared by most of the ALD users I know, though as with any accommodation, the person with the disability is in the best position to judge whether this is a feasible accommodation for her.)

Over the 40+ years and thousands of hours of ALD use in my lifetime, I’ve had similar experiences of professors and (conference) lecturers refusing to wear an ALD transmitter. When queried, they usually explained their opposition was because they believed it was a recording device in addition to an amplification device. This is a false belief.

After I explained that the ALD merely delivered their amplified voice directly to my hearing aid, allowing me more access to sound and thereby improving my ability to speechread their lectures, most professors consented to wearing the device. This was especially helpful when I was studying German (while also working with an ASL/German/English interpreter) and Arabic (no interpreter). Unfortunately, not all the professors or conference presenters I approached were willing to wear the ALD transmitter, even after I assured them it was not a recording device, though none cited religious objections as a reason. (My most recent experience with an academic refusing to use an ALD in a professional setting occurred in 2015 — this is not ancient history.)

Different countries designate different frequency band allocation for FM ALD signal transmission — it’s my understanding that there is some overlap between the Canadian and U.S. allocations (216-217 MHz). In the past, when the frequencies of 72-76 MHz were assigned to FM ALD systems in the U.S., there were more complaints of interference from amateur radio operators, whose frequency band allocation overlapped. Frequency band allocation usage internationally for ALDs is overseen by the International Telecommunications Union, which is a special agency of the United Nations that allocates radio spectrum bands for services to countries.

It is possible, though highly unlikely, given the weak signal strength of the assigned FM channels, that someone outside of the room listening within the designated range could pick up these signals. Given the challenges I’ve had just trying to get clear FM signals in a room seated while very close to the speaker with the transmitter, I find this an extremely unlikely scenario. For those who have concerns about FM signals leaking the content of their lecture beyond the confines of the classroom, there are three kinds of ALDs that get around this problem. If confidentiality is required, it is best to use another type of ALD.

One solution is to use an infrared ALD set-up, which transmits infrared waves within ‘line of sight’ transmission range. Since these waves do not travel through solid objects, an infrared ALD is especially useful in settings where there are concerns about unauthorized access to the content. I have used this in several settings where confidentiality is paramount, including hospital bioethics consultations. The catch is that solid objects include not just walls, but human bodies, so users need to position themselves accordingly.

Another solution is looping the classroom with an induction loop system, which limits the signal to those located inside the loop. The loop operates as a big directional antenna. This has the advantage of not requiring additional equipment for those who have t-coils in their hearing aids. For those who do not wear hearing aids or do not have t-coils in their hearing aids (you really should consider them, btw), a separate receiver can be used, but it will only function if the user is located inside the loop. Some universities have designated classrooms with induction loops — does yours?

The last option is to use a hardwire system, sometimes called a Direct Audio Input (DAI) system, where the receiver and transmitter are connected via cable. This has the advantage of the sender knowing exactly who is receiving the signal, but the disadvantage of cable length possibly restricting movement. (I myself have engaged in intricate sender-receiver dances due to cords that are not long enough.) As one might imagine, if either user has other disabilities, using a hardwire system may require other considerations, since the cable can become an obstacle or hazard.

A different accommodation that could be useful is CART captioning, in which a stenographer captures the conversation (like the captions on television), which is then transmitted to a laptop computer screen. Unlike ALDs, this requires the user to keep his eyes on the screen, thereby missing much of the nonverbal content.

I’d like to highlight one other issue here that hasn’t been addressed much in the media.

I think that is significant that this case involves an undergraduate student. The risks of filing a complaint can be different for undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduate students may have more course options than graduate students, and the nature of their relationship to their program and the professors in that program may also differ.

Graduate students sometimes believe they have fewer options because they are typically in a smaller academic community. Many fear that filing a disability accommodations complaint may have the potential to significantly impact a fledgling career, especially if this results in a ‘troublemaker’ label. Sometimes disabled students (and professors!) will opt not to file a complaint because it may undermine a larger goal — of getting into a strong graduate program, of getting a tenure track job, of getting tenure.

Until the climate changes around these issues, it is very likely that disabled students and disabled faculty will opt for prudence, making careful choices about when and how to stand up for our rights of equal access. Disability advocacy involves many hours of hidden labor, including the dance of politeness. This is especially true for those of us who are under-represented hours in other ways — intersectionality can make the calculus more complicated. (Just because the battle isn’t public doesn’t mean it isn’t happening — ask your disabled colleagues!)

Kudos to courageous students like William Sears and so many others, who are publicly sharing their efforts to change the ableist and audist climate of academia, bit by bit.