Enabling Participation in Graduate Education: Support for a Student Researcher who is hard of hearing

Annabelle L. Grundy and Michelle K. McGinn


In this brief research report, we highlight the first author's experiences during graduate study as a student with a hearing disability. Our self-study focuses on four components-- conducting an independent research project, defending a thesis, working as a research assistant, and participating in academic conferences-- that are common in graduate programs and entail new challenges for graduate students that they may not have faced as undergraduate students. Our reflections are intended to promote considerations about practices that enable students with disabilities to participate fully in graduate education.

The Study

Participatory and emancipatory approaches to research necessitate research education for people with disabilities (Barnes, 2003; Boxall, Carson, & Docherty, 2004). Graduate degree programs are obvious sites for such education, yet the literature in disability education seldom addresses graduate education. This paper is based upon a self-study (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001; Ellis & Bochner, 2000) of our experiences as Annabelle (first author) completed a research-based Master of Education degree under the supervision of Michelle (second author). These experiences do not reflect the experiences of all students with disabilities or even all students who are hard of hearing; rather they illustrate one student's successful navigation of a graduate program. We present this brief report to prompt considerations about enabling participation in graduate education for students with disabilities.

Annabelle has a severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. She uses an FM system with hearing aids and speech-reads. Throughout Annabelle's graduate studies, we met regularly to discuss her experiences and maintained individual research journals. A thematic analysis of our journal entries led us to identify four components-- conducting independent research, defending a thesis, working as a research assistant, and participating in academic conferences-- that are common to graduate programs and may entail challenges for students with disabilities.

Conducting independent research is a central feature in many graduate programs (Weidman & Stein, 2003; Wisker, 2005) and contributes to developing an identity as a researcher (McGinn & Lovering-White, 2004). Annabelle chose to conduct a qualitative interview-based study on learning and identity development for graduate research assistants (Grundy, 2004), which required us to define a suitable accommodation for working with audio materials. Rather than hiring an external transcriptionist to assist with the interviews, we developed the participant-as-transcriptionist approach wherein participants transcribed their own interview tapes, thus eliminating third-party involvement and streamlining the member-checking process (see Grundy, Pollon, & McGinn, 2003). All graduate students need opportunities to undertake independent research (cf. Colligan, 2001; Geography Discipline Network, 2001), and the participant-as-transcriptionist approach allowed Annabelle to maintain her independence and limit her reliance upon third-party assistance.

As in many graduate programs, Annabelle was expected to defend her thesis orally before an academic panel. To facilitate speech reading, we selected a room that had strong lighting, close seating, and minimal background noise. We also asked examiners to write their questions on cue cards to supplement their oral questioning. Thesis defenses can be stressful for any graduate student (Lemon, 2005; Park, 2005; Wisker, 2005), and students with disabilities should not be faced with unjustified additional stresses and challenges, but neither should they be excluded unnecessarily from important scholarly events.

Beyond independent research requirements, graduate students often work as research assistants on faculty-led research projects (Ethington & Pisani, 2003; McGinn & Lovering-White, 2004). Through work on three different projects, Annabelle extended her research skills, selected her faculty advisor, and decided to focus on research assistantships as her thesis topic (see Grundy, 2004, chap. 7). Graduate students with disabilities might be dissuaded from participating in research assistantships due to the extra time and challenges involved or the complexities of coordinating financial compensation with any existing support benefits; however, the educational benefits of research assistantships should not be unfairly denied (McGinn & Lovering-White, 2004).

Graduate students, especially those who are considering academic careers, frequently participate in academic conferences as delegates and presenters (Weidman & Stein, 2003). Annabelle participated in several national and international conferences as a graduate student. Small- to mid-size conferences (with 100-700 delegates) provided intimate environments for sharing ideas and engaging fully in the conference community; in this context, other delegates got to know Annabelle and began to self-monitor the inclusivity of their practices (Grundy, McGinn, & Pollon, 2005). In contrast, Annabelle was overwhelmed by a conference with 12,000 conference delegates spread over multiple hotels where insufficient time was allocated to travel between conference sessions and speak with presenters in advance. Conferences need to be organized to include students and other scholars with disabilities, so that all conference attendees' experiences will be equitable, enjoyable, and mutually beneficial.

By documenting some of Annabelle's experiences in the research components of her graduate program, we have endeavoured to identify aspects of graduate education that presented new challenges for her as a result of her hearing disability. Conducting an independent research project, defending a thesis, working as a research assistant, and participating in academic conferences are regular components of graduate study across disciplines. Whether required, recommended, or supplementary, these components contribute substantively to graduate students' learning and their development as researchers, and therefore must be inclusive for all students. Students with disabilities must be encouraged and supported to participate in all aspects of graduate education so that they will gain tools and insight in order to be successful in their degree programs, prepare for potential future careers as researchers, and become informed citizens.


Based upon this self-study, we cannot identify the specific measures that might be required to support any individual student to engage fully in graduate education, but we can provide some general principles. First, students with disabilities must be invited and supported to engage in important scholarly activities, whether participation in those activities is required or optional within their degree programs. Without adequate support and encouragement, students with disabilities might elect to opt out of non-required components of graduate study thereby limiting the scope of their graduate experiences, their learning opportunities, and possibly their future career prospects (e.g., excluding themselves from academic careers). It would be a tremendous disservice to individual students and to society as a whole to dissuade students with disabilities from participating fully in all aspects of graduate education.

Second, we have learned that collaboration and communication between students, academics, disability support personnel, and other staff are necessary to: (a) clarify the expectations for graduate students, and (b) establish and maintain appropriate practices that enable the full participation of students with disabilities. Disability support personnel need to familiarize themselves with the nature of graduate education and the expectations and opportunities available for graduate students. Students need to be self-aware about their abilities and advocate for accommodations that facilitate their learning and success (Madaus & Shaw, 2004). Academics and other staff can learn about the goals and potential for various accommodations through consultations with disability support personnel and students.

Third, we have come to recognize that accommodations are most successful when they do not undermine students' independence. Emerging independence is an important characteristic of graduate education, which should not be circumvented by accommodation choices. This is why it is critical for students with disabilities to become self-advocates and participate in the creative problem-solving process of identifying suitable accommodations for themselves that may extend beyond the traditional means promoted by disability support offices.

Students with disabilities have legal and moral rights to participate fully in graduate education and reap the resulting social and economic benefits. Their participation in graduate education is essential to building vital research capacity. As Giroux (2004) has argued, society cannot afford to exclude and disenfranchise individuals with disabilities from fully participating in the scholarship of the future.


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Submitted by:

Annabelle L. Grundy Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf

Michelle K. McGinn Faculty of Education, Brock University

Correspondence may be sent to Michelle McGinn, Faculty of Education, Brock University, 500 Glenridge Avenue, St. Catharines ON, L2S 3A1, Canada Email: michelle.mcginn@brocku.ca or agrundy27@yahoo.ca


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 7, No. 1
ISSN 1703-3381