Ranee Panjabi was involved in a similar situation about 20 years ago
By Todd O’Brien and Geoff Bartlett
Posted: September 16, 2015
History major William Sears of Memorial University in St. John’s depends on an FM transmitter to hear instructors in the classroom. (Todd O’Brien/CBC)
A Memorial University student with a hearing disability is upset that one of his professors refused to wear a sound-transmitting device last week during a lecture, and he said she told him it was because of religious reasons.
William Sears, 20, says Ranee Panjabi would not wear an FM transmitter system that he needs to hear lectures at the school in St. John’s.
“I’ve never experienced an instructor refusing to wear the FM, both at the university and throughout public school,” said Sears, a third-year history major.
“When she said she would not wear the FM system, it was effectively saying to me that ‘I will not teach you’ – because I need that FM system in order to hear the instructor.”
Forgotten deal exempts prof from wearing device to help hearing-impaired students
CBC News reached out to Memorial University for a response to the complaint, and was told the university has worked with the student to reach “an acceptable accommodation,” but could not comment further due to privacy concerns.
Panjabi has not responded to CBC’s requests for an interview.
An FM transmitter is a device that assists people with hearing problems and must be worn close to the speaker’s mouth. (Todd O’Brien/CBC)
Sears was looking forward to the History of Espionage course being taught by Panjabi, but had to switch to a different course after she refused to wear the device.
He said Panjabi told him that a similar incident happened about 20 years earlier and it had been resolved that she wasn’t required to wear the device.
“She said she had some sort of agreement with the Blundon Centre or with the university saying she wouldn’t have to wear an FM system because of religious reasons,” he said.
“I told her that was unacceptable to me, and as I gathered up my things and started to leave the classroom, Dr. Panjabi asked for my name so that she could strike it from the attendance list.”
Memorial University has not officially responded to CBC over questions about student William Sears and professor Ranee Panjabi. (CBC)
Sears was so shocked from what he heard that he had to go home before attending his last class of the day.
“When I got home, I immediately dropped Dr. Panjabi’s course,” said Sears.
“I was very upsetting, especially later in the day. I wanted to tell my dad because I knew he would try and help me.”
History of refusing to wear similar devices
The incident last week is not the first time Panjabi has caused a controversy by not wearing an FM transmitter.
Dr. Ranee Panjabi is seen a file image from 1996, when CBC reported on her refusal to wear an assistive device. (CBC)
In 1996, CBC News reported that MUN sided with a student who filed a similar complaint against Panjabi for refusing to wear one based on religious reasons.
“At university, to run into this situation – it blows my mind.”
– Bill Sears
Panjabi was also reprimanded in 1985 for a similar complaint.
While in each of those cases Memorial University sided with the students, so far the Sears family has been given no clear solution.
Sears’s father, Bill Sears, told CBC Radio he is not satisfied with what he has heard from both MUN and the university’s centre for disabilities.
“All we know is that it’s going through the channels in there, but we have had no feedback,” he said.
“The Blundon Centre said they would work with the professor if William really wanted to stay in class, to come up with compromise –
but to me, the compromise is that she wears the FM system. I don’t get the idea of her refusing.”
Bill Sears said he has been in touch with the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, which are both looking into the matter.
He said knowing what his son has had to go through in his life with regards to his hearing problems, only to face this now in what is supposed to be a place of higher learning, is deeply disturbing.
“To see him denied education is an absolute travesty. At university, to run into this situation – it blows my mind,” he said.
“I’d love to see where it is written that you can’t wear a microphone because of religion.”
Bill Sears, left, and his son William Sears hope they can prevent other students from going through the same ordeal. (Todd O’Brien/CBC)
In the meantime, all William can do is attend a different class, and hope that he and his father can get something done to prevent something similar from happening to someone else down the road.
“I’m disappointed that so far it seems like the university isn’t really doing anything to curtail this problem and make sure it won’t happen again,” he said.
“Unless they were to offer that espionage course in a different term with a different professor, there would be one course I wanted to do that I was not able to do.”