I’m a graduate student in the Engineering for Professionals (EP) program, and I’m disabled. I wrote earlier this summer summarizing my experiences with this department. I’d like to talk about a particularly bad math class that I took in spring 2019. My previous professors had mostly been slack about honoring my disability accommodations, but before this class, no one had been abusive or mean.
My professors are supposed to wear a little Bluetooth microphone. Let’s call her “Alice.” Alice is a lightweight device the size of a large thumb that clips to a collar or lanyard and streams Bluetooth audio into my hearing aids, which control her. With Alice, and a speaker whose face I can see, I experience clear speech.
The professor was supposed to arrive 15 minutes early the first day to figure out the logistics of where to clip Alice so she best catches the professor’s voice. If the professor comes early, I also explain that they shouldn’t take Alice into the bathroom; she’s not waterproof, she transmits up to 80 feet (some noises I don’t need to hear) and that they should take it off if they wish to speak privately with someone. Beyond that, I control Alice via my hearing aids, and their only responsibility really is to wear her.
This professor didn’t arrive early. I approached him in the hall as he hurried in and tried to explain Alice. He snatched her, put her on so she pressed right against his throat and went in to teach.
A microphone pressed against your throat loses the hard consonants, all of which are created by the tongue, teeth and lips. Worn like this, Alice doesn’t work for me. I ended up missing a lot of the first lecture.
But I heard some of what he said.
The professor read the University’s standard disability services disclaimer aloud to the class, then added, “This class may not be recorded except, unfortunately, for disability purposes.” I was the only student with a digital recorder in front of me, its little red light blinking.
My disabilities are mostly invisible. He outed me as disabled and declared me a nuisance in a single sentence.
In a weird twist of events, he became keen that I use a theater microphone instead of Alice. The fact that Alice was made to work with my hearing aids and was recommended by my audiologist didn’t seem to persuade him. He fancied himself an actor and said he was more comfortable with theater equipment.
A mathematician with no apparent health-care experience attempting to countermand my audiologist’s recommendation didn’t seem to bother Hopkins (audiologists are trained, licensed health-care professionals.) I say it doesn’t seem to bother Hopkins because administrators have been silent on the matter when I’ve mentioned it.
This professor liked to lecture facing the board. I also rely on lip-reading, so I emailed EP’s disability coordinator during the first class. The coordinator agreed and added it to my accommodations list. He still refused to face forward.
Before almost every class, I would ask him to face forward, and he would tell me it wasn’t a reasonable request; therefore, he didn’t have to. I emailed my disability coordinator about it often. Nothing changed.
Unfortunately, recordings of lectures don’t do me much good unless I understand what’s said the first time around. The textbook wasn’t much use, either — he taught mostly out of his head.
Weeks went by. I fell behind.
I finally told the head of EP that my professor still wasn’t facing forward. She said I wasn’t “proactive” enough. I said I’d told the disability coordinator the first day of class. Then she shifted the goalpost by calling me “pushy” and saying I shouldn’t expect him to change his teaching style.
The department head moved our class to a room with an electronic whiteboard so that he could draw while facing forwards. He used it a little but always retreated back to the regular whiteboard.
I even started hiding the markers before class, but he always seemed to find some.
Finally, I contacted a lawyer with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), the University’s civil rights arm. Back then, OIE still heard disability complaints. The OIE lawyer agreed to ask the professor to face forward. He still refused to face forward. I figured there was nothing left to do. For a few more weeks, I made the best of it.
Then I complained one last time to my department head. She claimed he’d told her he was facing forward when he lectured. In practice, it seems EP only cares about stopping discrimination against students if OIE gets involved.
By then the semester was half over, and I’d missed a lot of material.
A few weeks later, the professor began tapping Alice. You know how tapping a microphone can sound painfully loud? Well, it hurt so badly, I had to take out my hearing aids.
My hearing aids feel like part of me. Forcing me to take them out is a personal violation. I asked him to quit, but he wouldn’t. So I put up with it for the remainder of the semester.
By this time I was scared and feeling fairly friendless. Even though I regarded his behavior as physical abuse, and I’m pretty sure it was retaliation for the trouble I’d caused him, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. I just wanted to get through the course.
I figured the final project might make up for my poor midterm exam grade. (I made an A on the other main project.) So I worked hard, squeezing out every drop of extra credit.
During the last class, several people asked for an extension on the final project. The professor granted everyone an extension. I thought I heard the revised date correctly. (To me, a lot of ordinal numbers sound the same... fourth, fifth, twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth...) I didn’t check.
Another of my disability accommodations Hopkins had approved — long-standing — is that I am to receive all important information in writing. Due dates, anything graded. The professor did finally email me the correct due date — the day before the final project was due. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it until after I turned the final project in. It was considered late; he didn’t count it toward my grade, and I made a C in the course, which landed me on academic probation.
Yes, I should have checked my emails. Perhaps I should have borrowed more notes from classmates. But I’d essentially missed a great deal of the first half of the semester because the professor wouldn’t face forward — this was documented.
I figured Hopkins couldn’t be so unreasonable as to let this grade stand. But no. The man who had caused all the problems was the final arbiter. And he didn’t respond to inquiries.
On the Friday before Labor Day in 2019, I filed a formal complaint against this professor with OIE, including complaints against other EP professors who had failed to provide disability accommodations Hopkins had approved and the head of EP.
OIE responded the following Thursday: No reason to conduct an investigation.
So if an EP professor fails to provide a disability accommodation for half the semester, contributing strongly to a student falling behind, EP will not take responsibility. I’ve seen this play out again and again in my classes. They just don’t give a damn.
It’s hard to know how widespread discrimination and access issues are for students in higher education because it’s a rarely-studied area. JHU’s Student Government Association (SGA) reached out after my previous article and is now putting out a survey of disability@Hopkins.
This survey is for everyone. Disabled, or not. Please fill it out. https://cglink.me/2dh/s55915
Laurel Maury is currently a graduate student in the Hopkins Engineering For Professionals program. She works in information technology in Maryland.