Nancy McDonald, a hard-of-hearing woman who filed a complaint against Memorial University's Ranee Panjabi almost 20 years ago while she was a student, said she is appalled the university is permitting the history professor to refuse to wear assistive devices for people with hearing disabilities. 

"It shouldn't have happened again," McDonald told CBC News Friday, noting that she had asked the same thing of Panjabi while she was a student at the St. John's school in 1996. 

Ranee Panjabi

Ranee Panjabi, who refused to speak with CBC News, told a local broadcaster that she tried to make accommodations for a hard-of-hearing student. (NTV News)

Panjabi is at the centre of a controversy this week involving third-year history student Williams Sears, who said he was shocked when Panjabi refused to wear a small FM transmitter on her person so that he could hear her lectures. Memorial University later said it was surprised to learn that former administrators had made a deal in 1996 in which Panjabi was excused from making such an accommodation. 

Panjabi defends actions

Panjabi, who refused to speak to CBC News, told local broadcaster NTV News that she was the victim of "egregious tabloid journalism." 

She said the situation could have been avoided.

The professor produced the 1996 settlement agreement with Memorial University. According to NTV News, the agreement allows Panjabi not to wear the FM transmitter for students who are hard of hearing. However, it also stipulates that the university must provide an adjustable stand to hold the device and that Panjabi would lecture near the stand.

Panjabi said she tried to explain this option to Sears, but that he left before she got the chance.

"I was glad to try out different kinds of technology that would help a student hear not just me, but everyone else," said Panjabi, who told NTV News that her lectures involve a lot of class discussion and multimedia presentations.

"If I alone had worn the mic, the student would have been at a complete disadvantage," she said.

University reviews 20-year-old deal

On Friday afternoon, Memorial University said it regretted what had happened this month, and that it was taking action.

"Considering it has been almost 20 years since the original accommodation agreement with the professor was made, we are examining the agreement," deputy provost Cecilia Reynolds said in a statement.  

"We are also taking steps to ensure a student does not undergo a similar experience in the future."

McDonald said she is upset that a problem from two decades ago was playing out again. 

"I am ashamed to say that I am a graduate of Memorial, a university that will not accommodate students with disabilities," said McDonald.

"Is this the kind of message that the university wants to send to the public, to be known as a university that cannot guarantee equal access to education and allow professors to continue to discriminate against students with disabilities?" McDonald told CBC News in a prior email.

McDonald, formerly Nancy Parsons, produced a letter revealing that in February 1996, Memorial initially agreed with her complaint and deemed Panjabi's refusal inappropriate.

Nancy Parsons

Nancy McDonald, then Nancy Parsons, spoke to CBC News in 1996. (CBC)

McDonald filed a complaint against Panjabi during the winter of 1996 after the professor refused to wear an FM transmitter because it violated her religious principles. Panjabi told CBC News in 1996 that wearing such a device was against her Hindu beliefs. 

'It was insulting'

In 1996, McDonald was assured by Memorial's then vice-president, Jaap Tuinman, that the university would place its students' needs first.

"I have concluded that the first consideration in such cases must be the student's right to free and equal access and that Dr. Panjabi erred in her judgement that she could reasonably refuse to wear the device in view of her particular religious principles," said Tuinman in the letter.

McDonald said it is not good enough that the university appears to be backing Panjabi. 

"Back in 1996, I was assured by the university that if Dr. Panjabi refused to accommodate a student, like wearing an FM system, then disciplinary action would be taken against her," said McDonald.

"To hear about a secret deal that happened behind closed doors saying that she can refuse to accommodate a student and there would be no repercussions to it, it was insulting. I was surprised that the university would go along with this.

"Is Memorial University going to allow Dr. Panjabi [to] do as she pleases under the guise of tenure and unusual religious beliefs. It is time for Memorial University to move into the 21st century and respect inclusion of all students and not cater to professors like Dr. Panjabi who blatantly abuse their position as a tenured professor."

Religious reasons not cited

In 1996, Panjabi told the student paper the Muse that she practices a form of mysticism that springs from Hinduism.

William Sears hard of hearing MUN student

History major William Sears says he also felt discriminated against by Panjabi when she refused to wear an FM transmitter to help him hear his lecture. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

"The microphone would interfere in the harmony I must always feel between my inner self and my outer person," Panjabi told the Muse at the time.

"Nothing must mar the soul's identification with the person."

However, McDonald said that when Panjabi first refused to wear the FM system, it was because she didn't think McDonald could keep up with her class.

"She said that her class was very fast-paced and I would not be able to keep up with the course load," McDonald said.

"She never said anything to me about her religious beliefs. I never heard it from her personally, she just said that I couldn't keep up with her class. She's never explained her religious beliefs. I heard about her religious beliefs from the university after I filed the complaint."

Memorial's letter sent to McDonald in 1996 raised further questions about Panjabi's defence. 

"[Panjabi] explained to her department head and the dean of arts at length that her reasons were of a religious nature, based not on a universal precept of a particular tradition but on her personal spirituality and commitments," Tuinman said in that 1996 letter. 

"She gave the dean examples of how this same principle, based on her understanding of the harmony between spirit and body, prevented her from wearing devices such as a Walkman radio or tape player." 

In 1985, Panjabi refused to wear a microphone to assist hearing-impaired student Jeanie Bavis.

Bavis alleges that Panjabi did not cite religious reasons that time.

"[Panjabi] said she wasn't going to wear it because she didn't have to and it wasn't in her contract," Bavis told the Muse.

"There was certainly no religious excuse."

1996 letter sent to Nancy McDonald

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