MUN prof tells very different story, hard-of-hearing student says

William Sears, a university student who said his professor refused to accommodate his hard-of-hearing needs during a Memorial University lecture, says her story reported in local media is "inconsistent" with his experience dealing with her.

Student William Sears says he was surprised to hear Ranee Panjabi's version of events

History major William Sears, who depends on an FM transmitter to hear instructors in the classroom, says he was surprised to hear history Prof. Ranee Panjabi's version of events in his accommodation complaint. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

William Sears, a university student who said his professor refused to accommodate his hard-of-hearing needs during a Memorial University lecture, says her story reported in local media is "inconsistent" with his experience dealing with her.

"I was surprised by what she said, I mean it was very inconsistent with what she told me last Thursday [in class]," Sears told CBC News on Friday.

The third-year history student said he was shocked when, earlier this month, Ranee Panjabi refused to wear a small FM transmitter so that he could hear her lectures at the St. John's school.

While Panjabi refused to speak with CBC, the professor told local broadcaster NTV News she's the victim of "egregious tabloid journalism."

In an interview with NTV Friday, Panjabi said Sears walked out of her class as she trying to explain why an FM transmitter would not be suitable to use in her history of espionage course. 
Ranee Panjabi, who refused to speak with CBC News, told local broadcaster NTV News that she tried to make accommodations for a hard-of-hearing student, but he wasn't interested. (NTV News)

"First, the Blunden Centre [for Students with Disabilities] did not apprise the student about the fact that in a discussion, video-oriented course the professor might not even say that much," she said.

According to Panjabi, Sears took a "my way or the highway attitude."

Panjabi said she offered suggestions of alternative technologies, but Sears "said it didn't suit him and off he went."

"If he was as keen on that history of espionage as he has subsequently stated all over the media, I would have thought he would have been far more interested in hearing what I could do for him, rather than focusing on what would not have worked," Panjabi said.
An FM transmitter is a device that assists people with hearing problems and must be worn within inches of the speaker's mouth. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Panjabi added that she was open to accommodating Sears, despite having "a spiritual issue" concerning the use of the FM transmitter.

"I do have certain spiritual beliefs garnered over a lifetime of travel with my diplomat parents, intense study of many religious and spiritual sources," Panjabi said.

'She can't because of religious reasons'

But Sears said Panjabi's retelling of the incident differs from his own.

"I can honestly say that I have no recollection of her offering to give me a copy of this agreement or go through this agreement with me. She [told] me that she can't because of religious reasons," he said.

"She [said] there was an instance 20 years ago where an agreement was signed between her and the Blunden Centre that protects her refusal on religion reasons."

While Sears said the professor did offer to lay the device on a nearby table, he believes the suggestion was "unacceptable."

Sears's complaint brings to light a past instance in which Panjabi's refused to wear the technology.

In 1996, Panjabi told CBC News that wearing such a device was against her Hindu beliefs.

A human rights violation

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDP) issued an open letter to the president and vice-chancellor of Memorial Thursday, stating that Panjabi is causing undue hardship on her students.

The CCDP said it consulted a Hindu scholar and professor from St. Olaf College in Minnesota and couldn't find any evidence to suggest that the technology conflicts with Panjabi's Hindu faith.

"I am not aware of any teaching in my tradition that prevents a committed teacher from using helpful technology to foster learning in a student," Anantanand Rambachan said in a statement provided by the CCDP.
Dr. Ranee Panjabi, seen in this file image from 1996, the last time CBC reported on her refusing to wear an assistive device. (CBC)

"The willingness to use such technology demonstrates a commitment to knowledge and its transmission as well as compassion.

"A teacher in the Hindu tradition would do everything possible to ensure that a student seeking knowledge has an equal opportunity to do so."

The centre also said Sears may have grounds for a human rights complaint against the professor, as well as Memorial University.

"Not only have his human rights been violated, but his academic experience has been damaged as a consequence," said the CCDP.

With files from Todd O'Brien