Does any one have an experience with a hearing impaired student undertaking an oral defense of graduate thesis? I have a colleague in my graduate program who is profoundly impaired in both ears (to the point that hearing aid is absolutely useless). He would be defending his thesis this coming July or August and concerned that he might be failed if he is unable to communicate well with the examining committee. Does any one have any experience and can advice? My colleague neither signs nor understand sign language. The situation happened recently and he is still trying to adjust. But he speaks quite well and normally, and can talk if asked something he hears and comprehends. And if it helps, the university is in Canada, although I can not find any laws, either Canada's or the University's, dealing with this specific issues. If you are aware of any one who had similar challenges and undertook an oral defense, I will appreciate anything you can share on it. Thanks in advance for your kind response

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    How does this student normally communicate (in both directions)? Is there any reason why the committee cannot take the obvious approach of submitting questions in writing? "Oral" means the student speaks, not the faculty. Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 5:46
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    @AnonymousPhysicist thank you for getting back to me. Frankly I am not sure he has broached that possibility with his supervisor - the examiners writing the questions and passing them to him to answer. But I think that is a good suggestion. Actually he was thinking of something along those lines, except he felt he could be allowed to bring in some one - I would volunteer to do it if it would be allowed - who could listen to question from examiners and write them then pass it to him to read and verbally answer the questioner. He communicates - speaks, I mean - pretty well and so can do this
    – strunge29
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 6:05
  • Are the comitee people understanding and accomodating?
    – user111388
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 8:06
  • If nothing else pans out, you can set up a text-to-speech system for the questions to be automatically show on a screen. It will get a some words wrong (especially field-related terminology) but it should help a lot to smooth out things Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 10:30

4 Answers 4


Almost all universities in Canada have a disability support services office. You should contact them. They will discuss the situation with the student and the examining committee and recommend a solution - probably something similar to what you have suggested in the comments.

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    A second projector and screen may be helpful. Use one as usual, the other for questions. Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 6:35

I think that your friend needs to find a way to get advice to the examiners about things they can do. This should probably come from someone in authority, such as a department head or dean. Even the student's advisor might be a good source of such a reminder, but the administration has to be behind it.

The basic idea is that it should be the responsibility of the person asking the question to make the question clear to the other. The accommodation should be on their part, not that of the candidate here. Make sure that the committee understands that. This is just the same as the responsibility of the presenter to be clear to the listeners.

In many places the law and common practice will support this view as Alexander Woo points out for Canada.

I am also hearing impaired but not to the same extent, but I can give some advice for things that questioners should think about. I'm profoundly deaf on one side and partially on the other. I sometimes wear a hearing aid on the (not so) good side and it increases the sound level, but doesn't really help with comprehension of the spoken word. I can determine that words are being spoken (as I can by just looking) but can't distinguish the words themselves. I developed ways to respond to questions of students, but they wouldn't be of help in this case. Especially since this was a sudden problem for the person you describe where mine developed over years.

One reason is that we write like this butourspokencommunicationisactuallydonelikethis.

It is called continuous speech and understanding it depends on catching the unspoken breaks between words as well as the words, because we don't speak with breaks. Worse, if you don't hear and comprehend the first word you (i.e. "we") find it very hard to catch up with the meaning. It is just sounds, not speech.

And, increasing the level of sound (as with hearing aids or yelling) can be counterproductive, making comprehension harder. Some people learn informally to read lips to some extent, but it is difficult, especially given people's different accents and continuous speech.

The suggestion of Patricia Shanahan in a comment is a good one. Provide a way for questioners to "ask" questions using some visual means rather than aural.

And make sure that the administration guarantees that some curmudgeonly professor doesn't fail a student due to their own frustration or unwillingness to accommodate a candidate who has no effective way to respond.

  • "The basic idea is that it should be the responsibility of the person asking the question to make the question clear to the other. The accommodation should be on their part, not that of the candidate here." No, accommodation is a collective responsibility. Your approach would mistreat anyone with a speech or writing disability. Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 0:06
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, that is a shallow interpretation. Even Helen Keller took responsibility for her communication: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller. No one can read the mind of another.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 0:14
  • If you think I've misinterpreted your answer, then I suggest you clarify it. Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 0:17

I'm working peripherally with a woman who is deaf that is not an ASL user this year. When we need everyone to rapidly understand each other, we hire a captioner

We use one who is present in the room. She's very good. There are other web-based services that do much the same thing.

If your colleague is new to deafness, I suggest that something amounting to a dry run should be tried. This is worth working hard to get it right.

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    The difference between a captioner and a transcriptionist is that a captioner, who works with TV/video, isn't usually real-time (and can rewind the source material). A captioner would also layout text on the screen and synchronise it to the speech. A transcriptionist will be real-time and word-for-word accurate to the spoken original. The terminology does vary between fields and locations.
    – Owain
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 21:33
  • I wonder if just any captioner/transcriptionist would do. A PhD defense will include lots and lots of uncommon jargon specific to the field.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 11:31
  • That's one reason why I suggested a dry run, @Philipp. My experience is that there are resources at academic centers with people who know which available services to use, but the end user seems new to this accessibility issue, which complicates things a bit Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 11:39

Writing is too slow and intrusive.

What you need is a real-time transcriptionist who will provide a live on-screen transcription at 200+ words per minute.


http://stenoknight.com/index.html (New York City, but a very informative website with videos of the process)

and this is how it works in an intensive television quiz show:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00pl1kb (content may not be available outside UK) https://limpingchicken.com/2012/04/18/news-deaf-contestant-set-for-mastermind-appearance/

  • I'm not sure how this would help in the given situation. Can you say more about that?
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 20:34
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    Are you sure a transcriptionist could type technical terminology they have never heard before faster than a professor? Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 0:08
  • The transcriptionist will provide a real-time speech-to-text transcription which will appear on a screen next to or below the committee members. This will include not just Qs to the candidate, but also discussion between the cttee members. As for teminology, get a transcriptionist with experience in the field or give them the thesis to skim-read beforehand for vocab to add to their dictionary. This will cost money, but I think it's the only way to provide equality of access during the viva.
    – Owain
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 21:31
  • It's entirely possible that your disability support services office will pay for the services of a transcriptionist, and they may even know of a suitable one. Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 8:26

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