'Don't feel our concerns were listened to': Hard of hearing student upset with listening part of public exam

High school senior Jordan Hollahan has mild, sloping to severe, sensorineural hearing loss.

After being able to opt out listening portion now mandatory for all

Hard of hearing student Jordan Hollahan isn't happy with a listening component on his public exam. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

High school senior Jordan Hollahan has mild, sloping to severe, sensorineural hearing loss. 

That means he has a hard time hearing higher-pitched sounds than lower-pitched tones. 

"I was actually born with crushed lungs," Hollahan said. "I was dead. The machine that they put me in is what caused my hearing loss."

With hearing aids in both ears, he's learned to deal with being hard of hearing in the classroom. 

Through elementary school he used an FM system, one that has the teacher wear a microphone and allows him to hear the teacher's voice more clearly. As it is for a lot of students in his situation, moving to junior high was a little more difficult. 

Jordan Hollahan says he learned to adapt to help him hear and has been able to pick up music, singing and acting in musical theatre productions. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"As I got older, switching from class to class, it was obviously harder," he said.

"I'd have to remember myself to get the microphone from the teacher and take it to my next class. So as I got older I stopped using it."

That's not uncommon. He got used to it and said he taught himself to adapt. Since then he's gotten into music and sings a capella. As his final year of school at Mount Pearl Senior High comes to a close he has to write provincial public exams. When he got the handout at the start of the school year, one thing stood out to him. 

"Right in bold letters, 'listening,'" Hollahan said. 

"I was shocked because several years it got taken off. It was done. It was not on the English 3201 exam at all. Then last year they brought it back."

Grade 12 student Jordan Hollahan has mild, sloping to severe, sensorineural hearing loss. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

In the past, hard of hearing students like Hollahan could opt out of the listening portion without prejudice. Then the department of education brought it back and the listening portion is worth 10 per cent of the final grade.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but when it comes to getting into a college or university that could be an extra 10 per cent that I would have on my final grade that I won't have if I don't do it."

The fight isn't a new one for the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Kim Pratt-Baker has been the director of program services for 13 years. When she started in her position, hard of hearing and deaf students could opt out of the listening portion. 

"The expression of people who had already been here when this arose years ago was, 'not again,'" she said.

"Here we are back at Square 1."

The non-profit organization helps students like Hollaran. Last year it wrote a letter to Dale Kirby, Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of education, calling the requirement of the listening portion "discriminatory to students with hearing loss."

In Kirby's reply, dated July 4, 2016, he wrote that "accommodations for assessing listening are expected to be in place for a deaf or hard of hearing student long before the exam is administered."

This is the letter Dale Kirby, minister of education, sent to the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association NL last summer. (Submitted)

According to Hollahan, the accommodation means being taken into a private room, read the passage and then required to answer questions on what they heard. Even one-on-one, Pratt-Baker said, it's still very difficult for hard of hearing students. 

"No two people hear the same, especially if they have hearing loss," she said.

"I find it hard to believe if they [department of education] really understood this issue that they would put their students in this position."

For the listening component, students in English 3201 listen to a passage and then answer questions based on what they heard. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Both Pratt-Baker and Hollaran say hard of hearing students should get to see the passage for the listening portion with subtitles or be given the text as it's being read to help them fill in the words they missed. 

It's a position Kirby doesn't agree with. In an e-mail to the CBC for this story a spokesperson wrote:

"The goal of any listening assessment is to evaluate the student's ability to access 'through-the-air' communication and not written text. It assesses the student's ability to understand, analyze and then respond to non-written communication.

"Most students do this through hearing. For deaf or hard of hearing students, the process occurs with accommodations such as American Sign Language, speech reading, assistive technology, live reader, quiet space, extra time, and/or alternate space."

Speaking up for students coming up behind him

On May 30 Hollahan will take his listening test as part of the public exam for English 3201. He's already been accepted to Memorial University, where he plans to study archeology, but he's speaking up for other students. 

"What I am trying to do is get the word out there," he said.

"I want it to be so that students who are deaf or hard of hearing coming up through the next grade won't have to worry about it."

As for Pratt-Baker's thoughts on the department of education bringing back the listening portion for hard of hearing students,

"We really don't feel our concerns were listened to," she said.

"They may have been heard and responded to but we don't believe they were really listened to."

Pratt-Baker also invited Minister Kirby to stop by the Hard of Hearing Association and take the hearing loss simulation test, part of which you can hear below. 

Kim Pratt-Baker gives Jeremy Eaton the test 0:58