When Rights Collide

Jackie Leach Scully suggests that when rights collide, we should remember that religion is a choice, whereas disability is not.

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Recently, Memorial University Newfoundland was host to a widely reported clash between the rights of two different forms of diversity: with respect to disability and religion. A third-year student, William Sears, who is hearing impaired, was taken aback when Professor Ranee Panjabi refused to wear his assistive hearing device in the first session of her History of Espionage course. When he reported this to the university authorities he learned that Panjabi has a formal agreement, dating back to a similar incident in 1996, allowing her not to wear FM transmitters or similar aids to hearing for her deaf students. Panjabi claimed that she had a “spiritual issue” with wearing such devices that is based on “beliefs garnered [from] intense study of many religious and spiritual sources.” Earlier statements by Panjabi appear to link this more explicitly with her Hindu faith.

In the interests of full disclosure I should say upfront that as a profoundly deaf person, I’ve used FM transmitters throughout my academic life. They’re expensive and have a habit of running out of charge at crucial moments. Nevertheless, they enable deaf or hearing-impaired children and adults in non-signing contexts to function on an equal footing with their hearing peers. In many cases these devices are the only things that makes education or work possible.

Vintage Zenith Model A3A 3-Vacuum Tube Hearing Aid, Circa 1944

Vintage Zenith Model A3A 3-Vacuum Tube Hearing Aid, Circa 1944

When I explain what my FM transmitter does and why I need it, few people have refused to wear it. One teacher took a little persuasion, and a handful of speakers at conferences have been hesitant, though only one of these speakers rejected it outright. (Yes, Professor Max B., don’t think that I’ve forgotten you.)

People may be reluctant to wear an FM transmitter because they mistakenly believe that it is recording what they say, or that it will only provide general amplification of their voice, so they don’t need it.

I’ve certainly never had anyone argue that their religion stopped them from using it.

Panjabi and the University spokesperson cite religious grounds, but provide no details about the concerns. We can only speculate. It might have to do with using sophisticated technology, which some religious groups reject. Yet, there is no evidence that Panjabi spurns other equally sophisticated but more common technologies, such as a cell phone or laptop. Panjabi apparently suggested to Sears that the transmitter could be placed on a nearby table rather than attached to her body. So, the issue might be physical contact – either with a ‘worldly’ piece of equipment, or the symbolic contact with a disabled person, since traditional Hindu thinking sees disability as ‘imperfection’ and potentially contaminating. Unfortunately FM transmitters need to be close to the speaker’s mouth in order to work optimally, so this wouldn’t have been an acceptable compromise.

While Sears’ claims as a disabled person have been discussed exhaustively, there has been much less probing into Panjabi’s position. This speaks less to hostility towards disability than to our current cultural nervousness about religion and its place in public life.

From a disability rights perspective it’s wrong that this incident happened and Memorial University has handled this issue clumsily. But it’s encouraging that commentators have prioritized the legal and ethical obligation to accommodate disabled people. In general commentators were critical of any religious code that serves only to further disadvantage the already disadvantaged. Hindu experts who were asked to comment have also expressed puzzlement, saying for example that they were “not aware of any teaching in my tradition that prevents a committed teacher from using helpful technology to foster learning in a student.”

Standoffs like these are increasingly common as the claims of oppressed identity groups become more widely recognized. Aside from their direct impact on individuals, these conflicts raise important theoretical questions about rights, responsibilities, practical limits on accommodations, and the risks of exploitation that institutionalized accommodations inevitably offer (like using an oppressed identity as an excuse for behaving selfishly).

Some online discussions of this case expose assumptions about disability, religion, and appropriate accommodation that need to be challenged. For example, moving the student off Panjabi’s course on espionage and onto a different one, as the university did, is not accommodation. It’s excluding him from the course he wants to take — and has paid for. Using a sign language interpreter or speech-to-text translation, as some have suggested, isn’t appropriate either: Sears may not be a sign language user, and in any case because both modes of translation involve an extra step they create a delay that makes it much harder for a student to be part of an ongoing discussion.

The limits to accommodation must surely be different for an impairment that, with the best will in the world, can’t be changed. We can respect faith-based positions on a variety of issues while still recognizing that, compared to disability, religion really is more of a choice.

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Jackie Leach Scully is Professor of Social Ethics and Bioethics, and Co-director of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, Newcastle University, United Kingdom. @JLSbioethics

3 comments

  1. Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that religion is *only* a choice (the sub-title text was not written by me). I’m suggesting that it is *more* of a choice than disability is. I think this is fairly uncontentious. While both religion and disability are socially, culturally and historically mediated concepts, a person is considered disabled because that descriptor is linked to a recognised physical or cognitive variation that for various reasons is accepted as disabling. Clearly, religion is also about things like belonging, identity and so on that make opting out (or in) complex, difficult, sometimes impossible. But having a disability, except in some vanishingly rare cases, is not something a person is able to exercise choice over.

    So religion is more of a choice than disability, and this is important to this particular case and others like it.

  2. dorisrussell2001 · · Reply

    This is confusing to me because it does ,t seem to be a religious choice but one that is needed No I am not hearing impaired but can relate

  3. John Williams · · Reply

    While I agree with Scully’s analysis of this issue, I disagree with her conclusion that “compared to disability, religion really is more of a choice”. She may have intended to moderate the statement at the beginning of her post, “religion is a choice’, but even the softer version is problematic for many, if not most, religious believers. They do not choose their religion; they are born and raised in it and the concept of religious choice either would never occur to them or would be regarded as nonsense. This is probably true of those born and raised as irreligious in societies such as China and increasingly within other countries including Canada, although this warrants much further study. As for Professor Panjabi’s idiosyncratic religious belief about wearing technological devices, I agree with Scully that she should have been required to provide a specifically religious justification for it.

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