Steps Towards Universal Accessibility at John Rennie High School

by Chris Webb (BSc. Hons. & PGCE,) Math Teacher at John Rennie High School and

Tracey Green (MA, LSLS cert. AVed,) Teacher of the Deaf, Montreal Oral School for the Deaf

Few things are taken more for granted than one’s ability to use their senses to experience the world. For those requiring assistive listening devices, whether to treat a known hearing loss, or simply to overcome difficulties listening at distance or in noise, the luxury of hearing and listening cannot be presumed.

After a conversation with a student with hearing loss who highlighted the poor acoustics in the Louise Chalmers Theatre at John Rennie High School, (built in the 1960’s and set up as a professional theatre), improving access to sound in the space became a priority.
To solve our theatre problem, we started working with the Actor’s Studio program, Kurt Binnie and Michael Papoulias (Information Services at LBPSB), Dany Lasablonnière (Oreille Bionique), Tracey our Itinerant Educational Specialist (IES) from the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf (MOSD), Jenny Alvarado and Stephanie Joly-Houde (MOSD Audiologists) and talking to end users: Those using assistive listening devices.

After some research, it was quickly determined that a wifi system would best meet the needs of universal accessibility (as opposed to T-coil or FM based systems, traditionally used in concert venues). The Listen Everywhere™ system from Listen Technologies tallows the user to connect to the audio via their phone over wifi and stream directly to their listening devices, or a pair of headphones.

This means that anyone in the theatre who wishes to use assistive listening can access what is being said on the stage with ease, enjoy the sound effects, listen to music performances or what is being played, as well as participate in a presentation. Instead of teachers projecting their voices loudly, this technology has led us to pushing for the consistent use of microphones during assemblies and meetings, leading to a much more optimal access for all attendees/participants. In addition, we have also started to caption our live events using a custom built Google Chrome Extension which leverages the use of the in-built captioning in Google Slides.

Putting in place technology to break down barriers is an important step in improving access to information, but it does not solve everything for those living with varying degrees of deafness. Listening requires a great deal of effort, especially for the members of our school community with hearing loss. Our students with hearing loss are supported with services provided by the MOSD. This comprehensive team includes the IES and audiologists. As the students make their way through their school careers they constantly work with their IES on auditory training, self-determination, and advocacy skills to access the classroom curriculum and school life.

Auditory training is a must when using listening technology as the brain is a muscle and requires constant exercise to keep itself sharp. Most recently, the preparations for the upcoming Actor’s Studio Winter play, Alice in Wonderland, included some much-needed auditory training. The production is entirely student-led, with students taking on roles in cast and crew. The use of headsets which are used to communicate between members of the crew presented a new listening situation for one of our students with hearing loss, who boldly has taken on the role of sound designer. Situation-focused auditory training in the new environment with the headsets, a new technology, has allowed them to feel more competent and contribute in a meaningful way. And above all, it reminds us all that we can do anything we put our minds to!

Alice in Wonderland, produced by the JRHS’ Actor’s Studio, will be staged December 16th to 17th at 7pm (and a matinee on the 17th at 2pm). If you think you may benefit from assistive listening, you’re welcome to bring a set of headphones, earbuds, or hearing technology and a smartphone to connect to the built in Assistive Listening system and enjoy the show! Live captioning will also be available.

Find out more about what we’ve been up to on our blog http://www.listeningaccessability.ca

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