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Hearing-impaired N.L. student awarded $10,000 after prof refused to wear microphone

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Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. Memorial University is appealing a human rights ruling that found a student with a hearing disability had been discriminated against when one of his professors refused to wear a microphone in class, citing her religious beliefs.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Memorial University is appealing a human rights ruling that found a student with a hearing disability had been discriminated against when one of his professors refused to wear a microphone in class, citing her religious beliefs.

Brodie Gallant, an adjudicator with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, found the university failed to take appropriate steps to accommodate William Sears, who was told by a history professor that her religious beliefs prevented her from wearing an FM-transmitting microphone.

"It is clear to me that Mr. Sears was deeply affected by the incident and feels strong emotions from these events to this day," Gallant wrote in the decision dated June 30. The commission awarded Sears $10,000 in damages.

The university says in a statement that it has decided to appeal to the provincial Supreme Court because it believes there were errors of law in the adjudicator's analysis.

"Memorial has been and continues to be committed to providing programs and services that enable students with disabilities to maximize their educational potential," the statement says.

Before the start of each semester, Sears, who graduated in 2017, would contact the university's centre for students with disabilities about his hearing impairment and need for accommodation, the adjudicator's ruling says. The centre would co-ordinate with instructors so they would wear a microphone transmitter for his FM device, which helped him hear in the classroom.

But his request for accommodation in the “history of espionage” course taught by Ranee Panjabi hit a roadblock.

The decision notes that Panjabi, who has since retired, practised a form of mysticism, "a system of religious beliefs and practices focused on personal experience and a personal, individualized search for the truth, which may also be called the divine."

According to Panjabi’s beliefs, the decision continues, "the wearing of an FM transmitter on her person would cause a significant disruption and substantial interference with the spiritual balance that must, according to her religion, always prevail."

The university became aware of Panjabi's beliefs in 1996 following a complaint on "essentially the same issue," the adjudicator writes. At that time, the professor and the university reached an agreement that Panjabi would not be required to wear a microphone or other technological devices, and other accommodations would be made for hearing-impaired students.

Nearly two decades later, Sears entered Panjabi's classroom on Sept. 10, 2015.

"(Memorial University) was or should have been sufficiently aware of the probability that the rights of Mr. Sears and Dr. Panjabi would come into conflict," the adjudicator writes, "and yet it chose not to adapt its process to the reality of the situation. This is the moment when the opportunity to engage in a proper accommodation process presented itself, and was not followed."

A few minutes after entering the class, Sears asked Panjabi to wear the microphone. She refused, citing her religious beliefs and her 1996 agreement with the university.

The university says in its statement that Gallant acknowledged Memorial’s efforts to accommodate Sears, address deficiencies, update its policy and invest in technology so as to provide better options for such requests.

"Notwithstanding those positive comments, Memorial feels that there were some reviewable errors of law in the adjudicator’s decision," it says.

Gallant wrote in his decision that the university's subsequent efforts to address the deficiencies in its policies and identify alternatives to the FM transmitter were appropriate and reasonable.

"Unfortunately these changes came too late for Mr. Sears," the decision says.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

-- By Hina Alam in Fredericton

The Canadian Press