Marina Berts holds a Master’s from Helsinki in English, French and Scandinavian languages and literature and is now studying for a second Master’s in digital humanities at UNIL. Society is changing and this new Master’s is giving her the opportunity to study the humanities differently, in a fast-growing field.
Marina has a hearing impairment and has had to wear two hearing aids for a number of years. She is currently developing listening strategies to support her studies. One of these strategies is to visit her classrooms in advance to get a sense of the acoustic. There is always an element of the unknown and a level of improvisation, since the acoustic changes a lot depending on what is happening in the room, the number of people in it and whether exercises are done in small groups. Rooms with microphones are ideal for Marina.
Before she started her course, Marina went to see the disability coordinator in her Faculty, who advised her to go to the class and discuss the situation with her teachers. This proved to be very useful advice – almost all teaching staff were very welcoming and ready to help, and her studies got off to a flying start. Whenever a problem arises, Marina goes to see the teacher and discuss it. There’s always a solution, even in a difficult situation!
A hearing impairment is not always obvious, so it can be difficult to detect spontaneously and keep it in mind. Students working in small groups in a small room create a lot of noise and for someone with a hearing impairment, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what a particular person is saying. This can result in feeling excluded or unable to participate. A bigger room, where the sound is more evenly spread, can be an advantage. But there can also be echoes, where the sound simply “disappears”. It is important to remember that the hearing aids worn by people with a hearing impairment make everything louder, whether it’s a voice, a squeaky chair or the hum of cars on the motorway. As a result, a hearing aid does not necessarily help perfect understanding of speech in certain situations.
Sometimes, even if teachers have already been made aware of the situation, they forget to speak clearly or facing the students. It is also important to be aware that hearing aids look for sound from the front and not the back. If Marina is sitting in the front row – which is useful for understanding the teacher – she does not necessarily hear the views of the students sitting behind her. It is also harder to pick up female voices, which tend to be less confident, quieter and less forceful. Even if she turns her hearing aids up to the maximum, Marina is sometimes unable to hear women’s voices. And men tend to touch their beards (even if they don’t have one!) in a very common gesture, which prevents the sound from moving around the space effectively.
It is frustrating for Marina to have to keep talking about her hearing impairment. Ultimately, it is embarrassing to keep asking someone to speak up, not put their hand in front of their mouth or not stroke their beard. We all have our quirks and habits when we speak and Marina sometimes has the impression of touching on something very personal when she asks someone to change their behaviour. It is therefore essential for her to adapt, since she cannot always ensure an ideal situation. Since Marina has had a hearing impairment for a relatively long time, she has got into the habit of re-establishing the context based on a few words or phrases when necessary. She can also help herself by lip reading, even though she is not a specialist.
Marina, what advice would you give to students with a hearing impairment?
- Contact teaching staff before classes begin to let them know about the situation and explain the difficulties they face
- Ask for additional help if necessary
- Don’t hesitate to talk about any problems after the first class
- Don’t be afraid to sit in the front row
- Try out different places in the auditorium if it’s hard to understand, because sometimes the sound is better at the top or right at the back, especially if the teacher uses a microphone
- Take part in meetings about disability organised by UNIL, where you can meet the staff responsible for students with a disability, as well as other students who are affected. These are a good opportunity to discover the tools available, such as lapel mics, hearing loops in lecture theatres and the portable case system for rooms without a hearing loop.
What recommendations would you make to UNIL teaching and other staff?
- There’s no need to be afraid when a person with a hearing impairment gets in touch – generally, they’re used to working things out
- Don’t be defensive because you’re unfamiliar with the disability or you don’t know what to do – it’s always possible to find solutions together with the person with the impairment
- Talk to the student and come to an agreement, without pre-judging the issue
- In class, face the students and speak clearly and positively
- Avoid turning left and right or walking up and down
- If students are talking quietly, ask them to speak up
- Don’t over-articulate, or you will end up exaggerating and making people uncomfortable
- If a student with a hearing impairment has not understood, do not repeat the same thing using the exact same words. Instead, reformulate, especially if there is noise covering up what people are saying (group work, nearby motorway, etc.)
Marina is grateful for everything the university has put in place. There are people available to support anyone with a disability, reflect on and find solutions – and that’s really amazing!
Interview by Nathalie Janz, Rectorate Assistant for Student Affairs and head of the service for students with a disability