For the past year and a half, I have been doing pretty well in the language class I’ve been taking. I do much better at writing and reading than I do at speaking, but I’m making progress on all fronts. Recently, however, I encountered a major obstacle. As part of an exam, we had to listen to an audio clip that was played on a mini-laptop set on a table at the center of the classroom, and then answer questions about what we heard. The audio clip had background music, there was construction and traffic noise outside the classroom, the laptop vibrated on the table, and the speakers on the laptop were lousy. I couldn’t make out most of the words in the audio clip.
The other students also had trouble understanding the audio clip, but not as much trouble as I did. The instructor played the clip again and let me sit closer to the laptop, but that didn't help. When I was closer to the speakers, I mostly just heard the background music. I had to leave that page of the exam mostly blank.
I have been aware for the past year or so that I have been developing a mild case of Cocktail Party Syndrome, the inability to differentiate sound from background noise, but I hadn’t previously encountered a situation in which it mattered. I don’t think I have a severe case. We watch movies in this class and some of these have background music, but as long as the movies are played with a good sound system, I can understand them fairly well. When we have audio assignments for homework, I use headphones and definitely don’t have a problem then.
The instructor says that part of learning a language is learning how to understand the language even when the sound is not ideal. You have to deal with sounds as they come, even if the words are indistinct or partly obscured by other sounds. What if you are in a crowd? What if you have to understand a message broadcast over a loudspeaker in a bus station? It is important to understand what is being said outside a classroom setting, and therefore being able to do that is part of being able to do well in this class.
I agree with most of that, but there’s only so much I can do about my hearing in certain situations. I don’t know what I would do about this class if I were a real student and found that I couldn’t do the audio portions of the exams. Perhaps I would get my hearing impairment documented and request some accommodation, even if this involved creating an unrealistic language environment.
This situation made me think about all my students who need accommodations for exams and assignments owing to various physical and learning disabilities. It is rare to teach a class these days without at least one student needing to take exams at the disability services office, needing extra time, or needing some other accommodation. For example, I recently taught two hearing impaired students who needed interpreters in two different classes, and had to alter my in-class teaching style accordingly.
Providing accommodations for students with disabilities involves time and effort – sometimes a lot of extra time, and that can be difficult for an instructor. There have been times when I have been frustrated by the additional time and effort required, especially when I didn't have any time to spare.
However, these accommodations are an important part of making university education accessible to as many people as possible. I have heard the but-that’s-not-how-it-is-in-the-real-world argument against these accommodations before and have never found it very compelling. Now – much to my surprise – I find it being used as a reason for why I should just try harder to discern sounds from background noise*. Although my situation is not dramatic or dire, I am more convinced than ever that accommodations in a course can make the difference between success and failure.
* As it turns out, I didn't fail the exam after all, as the instructor just informed the class that she won’t count that part of the exam very much. However, she does want us to work on our listening skills more, and we may encounter an audio clip on the final exam.
8 years ago