Bioethics Blogs

When Rights Collide

Jackie Leach Scully suggests that when rights collide, we should remember that religion is a choice, whereas disability is not.

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Recently, Memorial University Newfoundland was host to a widely reported clash between the rights of two different forms of diversity: with respect to disability and religion. A third-year student, William Sears, who is hearing impaired, was taken aback when Professor Ranee Panjabi refused to wear his assistive hearing device in the first session of her History of Espionage course. When he reported this to the university authorities he learned that Panjabi has a formal agreement, dating back to a similar incident in 1996, allowing her not to wear FM transmitters or similar aids to hearing for her deaf students. Panjabi claimed that she had a “spiritual issue” with wearing such devices that is based on “beliefs garnered [from] intense study of many religious and spiritual sources.” Earlier statements by Panjabi appear to link this more explicitly with her Hindu faith.

In the interests of full disclosure I should say upfront that as a profoundly deaf person, I’ve used FM transmitters throughout my academic life. They’re expensive and have a habit of running out of charge at crucial moments. Nevertheless, they enable deaf or hearing-impaired children and adults in non-signing contexts to function on an equal footing with their hearing peers. In many cases these devices are the only things that makes education or work possible.

Vintage Zenith Model A3A 3-Vacuum Tube Hearing Aid, Circa 1944

When I explain what my FM transmitter does and why I need it, few people have refused to wear it.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.