The Disability Resource Center serves as a lifeguard on campus. It saves students when they're drowning, but at other times sits on its high perch, waiting for a sign of distress.
Sometimes it doesn't always see trouble below.
One of the many accommodations the DRC offers is a notetaker service, a program pairing disabled students with classmates who can provide or supplement notes for them. The University of Georgia is mandated by law to provide such an accommodation as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
"You're there to supplement information that they can't get on their own, so they're supposed to still go to class and take their own notes and still continue to try," said Allie Merdinger, a senior from Atlanta who has been a notetaker for five semesters.
But while UGA has a system in place for notetakers, many of the program's actions and decisions go unwatched, leaving holes in all areas of the process. And unlike many universities, UGA does not have an ADA coordinator to help advise the best interpretations on the law to ensure programs run smoothly.
The disabilities the DRC accommodates to warrant a notetaker range from physical deformities to chronic health issues such as cancer, but students citing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a good chance of scamming the system. ADHD, which is defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as “a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity or a combination,” affects 3 to 5 percent of children in school, but has become popularized because of the ease with which it can be faked.
“I would be more concerned if we were not providing notetakers to somebody who is qualified rather than one slip through the cracks somewhere that shouldn't be or is on the edge,” said Karen Kalivoda, director of the DRC.
Although the number of students with ADHD requiring notetakers is less than 1 percent of UGA's undergraduate population, it is steadily rising. The numbers show a trend which could lead to huge amounts of people requesting and being provided with notetakers in coming years. Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the number of students with ADHD applying for a notetaker grew by 50 percent, from 253 to 382. The number of students granted a notetaker rose 32 percent, from 185 to 244.
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David Berry, a psychology professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Kentucky, found in his 2010 study that people can fake ADHD with ease. All participants in the study needed were a few minutes with Google to research the symptoms to be successfully diagnosed.
“In a simulated evaluation, college students can successfully fake ADHD on self-report symptom checklists as well as certain types of cognitive testing,” Berry wrote in an email.
Other barometers such as selected symptom validity tests are much more accurate, Berry said.
Even though the DRC does not accept everyone with ADHD who applies for a notetaker, it has no standard documentation required for applicants.
Because every student and disability is different, Kalivoda said, “There's no blanket statement on what that documentation needs to be.”
In the wake of the popularization of ADHD, the DRC has not put any safeguards in place to counteract those who might try to fake an invisible disability. But this year the DRC did lower the percentage of students granted access to notetakers.
According to records of the past 10 years provided by the DRC, in 2012-13 the DRC accepted 63.8 percent of those with ADHD who applied, the lowest percentage during the 10-year span. In the nine years before, the average acceptance rate was 71.6 percent.
Cost may be a factor. In fiscal year 2013 the DRC spent $115,000 on wages for student notetakers provided for students with all disabilities, not just ADHD, up from the $97,365 the school spent in the FY12.
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The process to become a notetaker is as simple as raising your hand. Usually the professor makes an announcement that someone in the class needs a notetaker, and students then volunteer for the job.
Those interested do not need to apply with the DRC, and no prerequisites are required. This is unlike other colleges, which require a minimum grade-point average, a requirement UGA's DRC does not ask for. The University of South Carolina, for instance, requires students have at least a 2.5 GPA, while the University of Florida requires a 3.0.
Most interactions between the student and notetaker are conducted over email, so there is a chance they will never meet due to confidentiality reasons. As a result, nothing forces the disabled student to show up to class. The notes are sent in an email later that day, and if the professor doesn't count attendance, no one will.
“It would definitely be easy, I think, because my teachers don't take roll, so they don't know if the disabled student is there,” said Abby Cabarralo, a sophomore from Marietta who is a first-time notetaker this semester.
The paperwork notetakers sign states any notetaker who knows a student is repeatedly not coming to class can report him or her to the DRC, Kalivoda said.
But, it's not the responsibility of the student to take roll and determine if rules are broken.
“When you have a large lecture hall like that, I didn't keep tabs and make sure they come to class,” Merdinger said.
Notetakers are paid $80 per class each semester and $40 for each additional disabled student in that class, but they may sell or give away their notes as they want, and some sell them to other, non-disabled classmates.
It's an unintended aspect of the system.
Merdinger has sold her notes to non-disabled students, and the DRC is aware of the situation because it has one key requirement: No UGA athlete can get a notetaker's notes without being first registered through the DRC as a truly disabled student. The center fears notes will be shared with other teammates, Merdinger said.
“The one thing that the Disability Resource Center does make sure of is, if it's an athlete that's buying the notes, that that athlete is registered with the DRC,” she said.
Because of the way the notes are transferred from notetaker to student, the DRC has no control over where they might end up in the years to come. Once Merdinger emails her notes to her assigned student, they are public, and she has no idea where they might end up. Anyone else who is part of a student group, Greek organization or even group of friends could take advantage of the system by distributing the notes to other members.
Students can file a complaint with the DRC if unsatisfied with the quality of notes they receive, but UGA's policy lends itself to fixing problems instead of preventing them in the first place.
In the case of all complaints, Kalivoda said, "When that's reported, we investigate it."