A former Memorial University student who challenged the school and a professor who refused to wear a microphone seven years ago has won his case at Newfoundland and Labrador’s Human Rights Commission.
Memorial University failed in its duty to accommodate William Sears — a hard-of-hearing student who dropped a history class in 2015 when a professor told him she couldn’t wear an FM-transmitting microphone for religious reasons — according to an adjudicator appointed by the commission.
The school knew, or ought to have known, that the two would come into conflict over their accommodation needs, the adjudicator wrote, and didn’t do enough to avoid the conflict.
“Sears, a student with a disability, was placed into conflict with a tenured professor who held power over him and denied him meaningful access to education services,” wrote Brodie Gallant, who oversaw the proceedings at the commission’s board of inquiry.
“Ultimately Mr. Sears left class embarrassed and humiliated. It is clear to me he was deeply affected by this incident and feels strong emotions from these events to this day.”
Gallant awarded Sears $10,000 in damages; Memorial University is appealing the decision to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Supreme Court, hoping to reverse the decision and the fine.
“The university believes there are errors of law in the adjudicator’s analysis of the matter,” spokesperson David Sorensen said in an email. “Memorial has been and continues to be committed to providing programs and services that enable students with disabilities to maximize their educational potential.”
Warning signs ignored: decision
According to Gallant’s written decision, Sears regularly contacted the Blundon Centre, a department at the university that works to accommodate students, prior to each semester to have that department talk to his new professors about wearing microphones.
When he did so in 2015, a manager at the Blundon Center wrote to all the students upcoming professors — except for Ranee Panjabi. That was because the manager remembered that in 1996, there had been “a controversy” around a similar request.
In fact, in January 1996, another student at the university filed a discrimination complaint after Panjabi refused to wear a microphone. The professor later signed an agreement with Memorial University that guaranteed she would not have to wear a “phonic ear” or any other device on her person.
According to the decision, Panjabi practices a form of mysticism that focuses on “personal experience and a personal, individualized search for the truth.”
“According to Dr. Panjabi’s beliefs, 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.”
Two days before classes were set to begin, the manager wrote to an acting director asking for guidance, but according to the adjudicator, the acting director did not remember the agreement and told the manager of the Blundon Center to proceed as usual.
“This is the iceberg warning that Captain Edward Smith ignored on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic,” Gallant wrote. “This is the moment when the opportunity to engage in a proper accommodation process presented itself, and was not followed.”
Unfortunately, these changes came too late for Mr. Sears.– Brodie Gallant
Gallant wrote in his decision that Panjabi said she didn’t see the two emails sent to her, so when Sears entered her classroom, neither knew that a conflict was likely. Sears asked Panjabi to wear the microphone, and Panjabi refused, citing her agreement and her religious beliefs. She instead offered to put a microphone on a table nearby, but Sears said that was not enough and left the classroom.
“The decision here to proceed without taking any special steps to address the potentially competing rights of Mr. Sears and Dr. Panjabi is akin to recklessness or willful blindness and it ensured that these competing rights would become conflicting rights,” Gallant wrote.
Neither Sears nor Panjabi responded to requests for interviews about the incident. Panjabi has since retired, and Sears completed his degree in 2017.
Memorial University’s appeal to the court said the adjudicator’s decision failed to properly analyze the school’s obligation to balance competing rights, and did not consider whether MUN acted in good faith.
The university and the adjudicator agreed that many changes have been made since 2015 to avoid similar conflicts. Those changes include a self-registration system in which students can ask for accommodations without having to approach instructors in person.
“I am satisfied MUN’s subsequent efforts to address the deficiencies in its policies … were appropriate and reasonable,” the adjudicator wrote. “Unfortunately these changes came too late for Mr. Sears.”
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