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