Memorial University of Newfoundland says an agreement made with Ranee Panjabi in 1996 means the professor does not have to wear an FM transmitter to accommodate students with hearing impairments.

The St. John's professor has had a deal for nearly 20 years that states she doesn't need to wear the device.

History major Williams Sears, 20, told CBC News that Panjabi would not wear an FM transmitter system that he needs in order to hear what's going on in the History of Espionage course at MUN.

According to Sears, Panjabi cited religious reasons for not wearing the device.

'We accommodate the rights of our students, but also the rights of our faculty and staff.' - Cecilia Reynolds with Memorial University

Cecilia Reynolds, deputy provost students at Memorial University, told CBC's On The Go that the university had apparently forgotten about the deal made with Panjabi.

"Unfortunately, we recently learned that there was an accommodation reached with the faculty member in that class in 1996 and that accommodation meant that she would not be asked to wear the particular technological device that he [William Sears] required for his hearing needs," said Reynolds.

"I actually learned about that just yesterday and it was not something that a lot of people knew about."

FM transmitter hearing disability

Memorial University student William Sears asked his history professor to wear this FM transmitter so he could hear her lectures. She refused. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Reynolds said she couldn't get into specifics about the religious grounds that prompted the accommodation granted to Panjabi.

"We accommodate the rights of our students, but also the rights of our faculty and staff, so when it comes to competing interests in the need to accommodate, these things need to be very carefully sorted out," she said.

"They're finely nuanced, there's very fine points of law and human rights involved."

Student 'shocked' by 1996 agreement

Sears said he approached the Blunden Centre, the university's centre for disabilities, to ensure his professors agreed to accommodate him with the FM transmitter.

MUN student with hearing disability speaks out about professor refusing to wear a sound-transmitting device2:04

The FM transmitter that Sears uses fits in the palm of a hand. To work properly, it needs to be worn near the speaker's mouth.

"I'm honestly shocked. I was hoping that agreement she said she had wasn't there," Sears said. "When I was talking to the Blundon Center, they didn't think there was an agreement."

Reynolds said that misunderstanding led to an unfortunate situation where Sears was unable to attend a class he thought would accommodate him.

Dr. Ranee Panjabi  MUN 1996

Dr. Ranee Panjabi is in this file image from 1996, the last time CBC reported on her refusal to wear an assistive device. (CBC)

"That was our error and I regret that, I certainly regret the negative experience that this student has gone through," said Reynolds.

"It is a matter of this being a 20-year accommodation for this particular faculty member and us not knowing about that when all of those exchanges were happening."

She added the university will continue to work with Sears to ensure he has access to the learning material for the course he's paid tuition for so he can continue with his post-secondary education.

'Broke my heart,' says advocate

Meanwhile, an advocate for people with hearing disabilities said he was shocked to learn the same professor at Memorial he dealt with 20 years ago had again refused to wear the FM transmitter.

Jack Jardine, who works with the Newfoundland Co-ordinating Council on Deafness, said Sears's story was a familiar one.

'It was a very, very public fight. It was a very messy fight.' - Jack Jardine

He used to help students transition from the former Newfoundland School for the Deaf to university and remembers that Panjabi refused to wear a hearing device for another student in 1996.

"I was very angry," Jardine said of the prior incident.

He recalls speaking to a number of people at MUN who also expressed their dismay. 

"It was a very, very public fight. It was a very messy fight," he told the St. John's Morning Show on Thursday.

"I said [at the time] in the 20th century this doesn't happen; well in the 21st century it certainly should never happen again," he said. 

Panjabi, who has not responded to several requests for an interview, told CBC News in 1996 that her Hindu beliefs prevented her from wearing an assistive device that a student with a hearing impairment had asked her to use.

Jack Jardine

Jack Jardine, who works with the Newfoundland Co-ordinating Council on Deafness, spoke with the St. John's Morning Show on Thursday about the situation faced by William Sears. (CBC)

Panjabi was reprimanded in 1985 for a similar complaint. 

At the time of the incident nearly 20 years ago, Jardine said he was pleased that the university accommodated the student by switching that person to a different course, but said the same scenario shouldn't be happening today.

Jardine said it "broke my heart" that Sears was put in that situation. 

Memorial University said has it worked with the student to reach what it called "an acceptable accommodation" between Sears and the university.

However, Sears is not accepting the university's rationale, and says no other student should be put in a similar position.

Sears, who said he immediately dropped Panjabi's course, said he is disappointed that the university appears not to be taking action so that other students can be properly accommodated in class. 

He and his father, Bill Sears, have contacted the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission. Bill Sears said both groups were looking into the complaint.

William Sears hard of hearing MUN student

History major William Sears depends on an FM transmitter to hear instructors in the classroom. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)