How the University of Auckland caters to students who are deaf and hard of hearing
To state the obvious, we’ve all had to adjust to new ways of teaching and learning over the past two years. These changes have been hard for everyone, but there are some positives: students with hearing impairments are benefiting from recorded lectures after years of campaigning for increased accessibility. Turns out it wasn’t that hard to meet some of their needs after all. But what still needs to change for the University to become a more accessible place?
Monica, a Masters student, has reverse slope hearing loss, which means it’s difficult for her to hear low frequency sounds—like male voices. She has a little bluetooth microphone that she asks lecturers to wear so she can hear no matter where she is in the lecture theatre. In her first year, one lecturer refused.
“He refused to even discuss it. He didn’t even have slides, so I’d just sit in this theatre, watching as he’d smile and talk and other students would laugh when he’d clearly just told a joke, having absolutely no idea what was even happening.”
The lecturer never apologised, and never wore the microphone. The compromise wrangled by Monica, her mum, and Disability Services was for the lectures to be recorded. That seems underwhelming in 2022, now that all lectures are recorded.
Recording lectures benefits everyone, especially deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) students. They can pause, adjust the volume, and rewind as many times as needed. Before Panopto was rolled out this year, some lecturers even went above and beyond to upload lectures privately to YouTube so that deaf and HOH students could have the auto-generated captions.
Though remote learning improved accessibility, it came with its own issues. Latecia, who has moderate-severe hearing loss, found remote learning pretty tricky.
“I don’t do well in the Zoom call so I normally ask my Mom or my Aunty to help me by being a notetaker,” she says. Like many of us, Latecia found it awkward to make friends over Zoom. In person, she’s able to use lipreading to help her understand her peers. In a virtual room full of black boxes, with the occasional anime waifu pic, lipreading is impossible.
Zoom and Microsoft Teams now enable live transcriptions (though this feature isn’t supported in breakout rooms, boo). Panopto can auto-generate captions for lecture recordings. Mark Thomson, the University’s Student Disability Services manager, says that closed captions in teaching videos was an accessibility gap that needed to be filled. Mark says that because of the pandemic, “progress was made in such a short period of time”. He feels that momentum is still building. Conversations about accessibility that started during the lockdowns have continued, and hopefully they never stop. It’s a little bittersweet that it took a global catastrophe to help people re-conceptualise learning beyond a one-size-fits-all approach when people with disabilities and disability advocates have been pushing for these solutions for years.
Despite these changes, there’s still more to be done. Though Aotearoa is a trilingual nation on paper, English is undoubtedly given preferential treatment. The AI generating closed captions struggle to recognise Te Reo Māori because they are loaded with language packs that expect English. We’re a long way off having AI New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) interpreters in our Zoom calls, though there are initiatives, like Kara Technologies, trying to virtualise NZSL through motion capture technology.
While many teaching staff are understanding and ensure accessibility, thoughtless ableism and outright stubbornness linger. Too often, staff fail to account for students with hearing impairments when communicating crucial information. For example, when a lecturer mentions the desired referencing style verbally, but doesn’t include it in the written assignment instructions.
It can take a deaf or HOH student hours to get through a lecture recording because they need time to pause and rewind. If content from the morning’s lecture is examinable later that day, students with hearing impairments are at a disadvantage. When lecturers absently wander away from stationary microphones, students will miss out. Some students miss out on tutorial and class discussions altogether because group conversations can be difficult to follow.
There are more comical obstacles, too.
“Beards are really weird with hearing. You can’t lip read a beard, it’s like you’re looking at a muppet,” Monica says. We laugh about it during the interview, but I can’t stop thinking about it afterwards. Like, what are you meant to do? You generally can’t ask a virtual stranger to shave their beard for you. The only real options are to have an interpreter (but not all students with hearing impairments are fluent in NZSL), or to try your best and then just watch the lecture recordings later.
These things deeply impact students with hearing impairment’s academic success and their feeling of belonging at the University. It can be exhausting and disillusioning for people with hearing impairments to constantly have to convince others to accept their basic needs.
“Give it a go without the mic—if you still think you need it, I’ll wear it next time.” “But you can hear me from here.” “You don’t sound deaf.”
For many students with hearing impairments, reading lips or watching interpreters during lectures makes it difficult to take notes at the same time. Latecia has language delay, which means she tends to struggle with writing and reading. In her first year, she told me she was grateful to have a notetaker.
Notetakers are a vital source of support that enable deaf and HOH students to access course content equitably. Disability Services generally employ students with high grades to be notetakers to ensure they have a good understanding of the content, and they do their best to match expertise. But there can be shortages, especially at postgraduate level where there’s a smaller pool of candidates. In semester one this year, Monica only had a notetaker for one of her three classes.
“I was spending so much time each day just figuring out what they’d said [in class], let alone actually trying to understand the content. I went to Disability Services at the end of last semester to tell them, ‘Hey, I really need these notetakers’. Not getting a notetaker is a real problem. I was very blunt with them. I failed one of my papers last semester. I’m like ‘look if I don’t get this support, I don’t think I can make it through Masters.’”
Mark tells me that with the University’s new Disability Action Plan, UoA is talking about accessibility more in every aspect of its decision-making, from real-estate to software. They want to see more disabled students at the University, they want to see them more included and succeeding, and they want to see meaningful employment for them once they graduate. Monica wants that too.
“It’s really heartbreaking, because I like this University. But when I’m talking to my deaf friends, I can’t recommend it to them. I know what they’d face here. I’d really like to see this place become way more deaf friendly, to be honest. I would like to be able to actually recommend this place to my friends.”
Ensuring the University delivers on its Disability Action Plan will take everyone. The team at Disability Services does a lot of invaluable work supporting students with hearing impairments, but they can’t do it alone.
If you’re a hearing student, consider becoming a notetaker! You get paid to take class notes, which you’re doing anyway. Look out for emails or Canvas announcements from Disability Services.
If you’re a student with a disability, Disability Services wants you to know that there is support for you—don’t wait for an issue to become an issue. Hopefully, as the Disability Action Plan moves forward, disability support at UoA will become even more robust.