Breaking barriers down
Straining to catch every word
Many people who are handicapped are immediately recognizable as such – they may have a guide-dog or use a wheelchair. Lara’s case is quite different. She must “come out” every time a new lecturer walks in.
I can’t deny it, I‘m a little nervous – will it be possible to have a real conversation at all? However, no sooner have I knocked on the door of LMU’s Disability Service than Lara opens it. She is doing a Master’s degree in the Prevention of Hearing Loss, and the Inclusion and Rehabilitation of the Hearing Impaired, and works as a student assistant for the Disability Service. Lara herself is almost totally deaf. Without a hearing-aid, her world is filled with silence.
Smiling, she invites me in. Her voice gives no hint that her hearing is severely impaired. Doctors are always astonished when they see her audiograms, she remarks – quite casually, later – as I take my leave.
When the barrier is in the minds of others
In her daily routines and interactions with others, Lara gets by with the help of her hearing aid and by lip-reading, “although I sometimes make a fool of myself because I have misunderstood some phrase or other, or I repeat a joke that someone has just made – because I didn’t catch it the first time round,” she says with a grin. In lectures and seminars she is dependent on her hearing-aid, and although many lectures theaters are equipped with infrared sound systems, Lara is usually forced to make use of a portable wireless hearing system. “Everyone whose hearing is impaired wants to catch everything that is said,” Lara says – and not only because she happens to have an enquiring mind and is intensely interested in her studies. For the lives of the hard of hearing are a constant struggle to pick up every single spoken word, she tells me. Listening is very hard work for her, a task she must devote an inordinate amount of concentration. “It’s very demanding for me. I get tired quicker and have to take breaks more often.” When she needs a break, she pulls the plug, and the silence returns.
In spite of all the technology, Lara sometimes runs into barriers still – though these are mainly in the heads of others. There have, for instance, been cases where the lecturer flatly refused to wear the portable microphone-transmitter that is an integral part of the system she uses at lectures. She takes such an instrument from a nearby cupboard: It’s no bigger than an MP3 player, weighs only a few grams and has a neck-loop. However, most members of the teaching staff are sympathetic and helpful, she says, and many do everything they can to make things easier for her. “When I attend a seminar I have a microphone to hand if I need to ask for clarifications. Some lecturers make every effort to ensure that I don’t miss anything, and will go the extra mile even with the microphone, and I’m very grateful for that,” she says. “One very quickly gets used to the microphone,” says Anna, a classmate of Lara’s who also works part-time for the Disability Service. “If Lara happens not to be with us, everyone in the group first looks around for the microphone.”
Between lecture-hall, quiet room and school
Lara and Anna work in the quiet room in the office of LMU’s Disability Service. Taped to the monitor at one of the workstations is a notice: “Don’t forget to keep records!” Lara must keep tabs of all phone calls and mails that come in – and the Disability Service receives on the order of 1000 inquiries from handicapped students each year. “Many of these come from students with chronic and psychiatric illnesses, and because their handicaps are not obvious, they run into lots of barriers,” says Lara. She too is forced to “come out” in situations in which her non-apparent disability puts her at a disadvantage. But she enjoys her work as a student assistant with the Disability Service. Among other things, she loans out devices such as wireless hearing systems or aids for the blind to handicapped students, and other things. In addition, she provides lecture transcripts for fellow students who are preparing for exams or helps them to learn the routes to the various lecture halls and seminar rooms. One of the major challenges in the breaking down of is making course content accessible to all handicapped students, no matter what disabilities they may suffer from. Students who are blind, for example, need to have learning materials converted into voice output by a screen-reading program.
What Lara likes best about her own course of study, which also covers the didactics of teaching grade-school kids who have hearing impairments, is its clear emphasis on the practical side of things. She has worked in schools for the hearing impaired since her very first semester, either in full-time blocks or while actively engaged in her studies. Indeed, she is one of the rare teachers of the hearing impaired who is intimately acquainted with the difficulties her pupils face every day. That being said, it is really her outgoing personality and commitment to interactive communication that makes her such an ideal grade-school teacher for these pupils. “These children have to bring a fair measure of fighting spirit to school,” she says. “The system doesn’t make it easy for them.” – And children with hearing impairments often lack self-confidence. That’s why Lara enjoys her role as a model for her young charges. “For most of the kids, the fact that I too have to use a hearing aid – and that I’m studying at university – is just super cool.”