ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A student at Memorial University who is hard of hearing will pursue a human rights complaint after one of his professors allegedly refused to wear a device that would allow him to hear lectures in her class, says the student’s father.
Bill Sears believes his 20-year-old son William is being discriminated against because of his hearing impairment at the school in St. John’s, N.L.
The young man says history professor Ranee Panjabi refused to wear the device, which sends signals to his hearing aid, because of her religious beliefs.
Panjabi could not be reached for comment.
Bill Sears says when William approached Panjabi on the first day of class to give her the device, she wouldn’t use it and suggested he leave it on the front desk.
“This has happened to… other hard-of-hearing students besides my son. It’s got to stop,” said Sears, who has outlined the case for the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.
He said they are waiting for the next step in the human rights process and have also formally complained to the university.
Sears said his son, who was in class and unavailable for comment on Friday, felt humiliated and wants to avoid a repetition of the incident.
The school’s deputy provost of students, Cecilia Reynolds, says an agreement made 20 years ago after a similar case means the professor does not have to wear the device.
Former student Nancy McDonald has provided a letter to radio station VOCM that she received from the university in 1996 from the vice-president academic at the time. In it, Panjabi is quoted as telling the dean of arts her religious reasons weren’t based on a particular religious tradition, but were part of her “personal spirituality and commitments.”
The university said in a written statement Friday it has policies that support inclusive education. In this case, the solution was to have the student take a different history class.
“In the rare circumstance such as this, where a student’s request for an accommodation engages a competing legal right, the university must determine the validity of the legal rights and seek a balance that fully respects the importance of both sets of rights,” says the statement.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the director of the equality program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said if the case goes forward courts and tribunals may assess whether the professor’s religious belief is sincerely held.
The lack of detail on the professor’s stance makes it difficult to take give an informed opinion on how judges might rule, she said in an interview.
Mendelsohn Aviv said courts generally shy away from assessing whether a person’s belief on a particular issue is officially part of a religion, as they recognize religions often allow for a wide spectrum of viewpoints.
“In law we don’t want to turn our courts into religious tribunals. We don’t ask our courts to look at the content of beliefs. We ask them to assess the sincerity of belief,” she explained.
If courts determine the belief was sincerely held, then the question may become whether allowances made by Memorial University for the student’s right to equal access to education was adequate, she added.
“It seems extremely important that students with special needs be able to take a class and that proper accommodation be provided,” said Mendelsohn Aviv.
Myrtle Barrett, president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, says the case is frustrating for advocacy groups trying to ensure people with hearing impairments can gain access to education.
“Here we are once again being challenged to reach out and help a young hard-of-hearing youth trying to obtain an education which is barrier free,” she wrote in an email.
She said the university has a strong policy prohibiting discrimination that it doesn’t appear to be following.