Gaming the Disability System

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Gaming the Disability System

At the begin­ning of every semes­ter, I receive sev­eral let­ters of accom­mo­da­tion for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. Usu­ally, the let­ters describe learn­ing rather than phys­i­cal disabilities.

Unfor­tu­nately, the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, a noble ges­ture to elim­i­nate dis­crim­i­na­tion and phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, has increas­ingly become a means for col­lege stu­dents to game the aca­d­e­mic sys­tem for bet­ter grades.

One of the dis­abil­i­ties cov­ered by many uni­ver­si­ties is atten­tion deficit/​hyperactivity dis­or­der, or ADHD. An esti­mated 5 to 8 per­cent of all col­lege stu­dents receive dis­abil­ity sta­tus from this difficult-​to-​diagnose dis­ease. More­over, 25 per­cent of all uni­ver­sity stu­dents receiv­ing dis­abil­ity sta­tus claim to suf­fer from ADHD.

I’m not say­ing that ADHD does not exist. All med­ical orga­ni­za­tions say it does. But it is often mis­di­ag­nosed and abused.

Here’s what two researchers wrote in 2012: “Malin­ger­ing to obtain an ADHD diag­no­sis may be espe­cially per­ti­nent to col­lege stu­dents. Stu­dents may delib­er­ately over-​report ADHD symp­toms to pro­cure aca­d­e­mic accom­mo­da­tions or feign ADHD to obtain a pre­scrip­tion for stim­u­lant med­ica­tion, which many stu­dents believe will enhance their aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance.” For more infor­ma­tion, see http://​www​.ncbi​.nlm​.nih​.gov/​p​m​c​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​P​M​C​3441934/

The accom­mo­da­tions include more time for tests, excused absences, note-​takers, alter­na­tive grad­ing rubrics and a host of other items that basi­cally make a class eas­ier for the student.

All of this costs money — higher tuition, taxes and health insur­ance. For exam­ple, the test for ADHD is not based on lab results but on a psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion, which can cost more than $2,000, with indi­vid­ual coun­sel­ing ses­sions at $100 to $150 an hour.

The admin­is­tra­tion for such stu­dents has grown astro­nom­i­cally at uni­ver­si­ties. I recently inquired about an accom­mo­da­tion for a stu­dent and was told there were sim­ply too many stu­dents to eval­u­ate each class. There­fore, I received a form let­ter for a stu­dent that had vir­tu­ally noth­ing to do with the course I teach. More­over, no one had coun­seled the stu­dent about whether jour­nal­ism was a good sub­ject to study for some­one who had dif­fi­culty meet­ing dead­lines and tak­ing notes.

It’s time to fol­low the intent of the law rather than to allow these unin­tended con­se­quences to con­tinue. Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties should make “rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions” to allow stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate in courses, pro­grams and activ­i­ties. Rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions – not extra­or­di­nary ones – are what the law prescribes.


Christo­pher Harper, a long­time jour­nal­ist with The Asso­ci­ated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and The Wash­ing­ton Times, teaches media law. Read more at www​.media​mashup​.org

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At the beginning of every semester, I receive several letters of accommodation for students with disabilities. Usually, the letters describe learning rather than physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act, a noble gesture to eliminate discrimination and physical barriers, has increasingly become a means for college students to game the academic system for better grades.

One of the disabilities covered by many universities is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. An estimated 5 to 8 percent of all college students receive disability status from this difficult-to-diagnose disease. Moreover, 25 percent of all university students receiving disability status claim to suffer from ADHD.

I’m not saying that ADHD does not exist. All medical organizations say it does. But it is often misdiagnosed and abused.

Here’s what two researchers wrote in 2012: “Malingering to obtain an ADHD diagnosis may be especially pertinent to college students. Students may deliberately over-report ADHD symptoms to procure academic accommodations or feign ADHD to obtain a prescription for stimulant medication, which many students believe will enhance their academic performance.” For more information, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441934/

The accommodations include more time for tests, excused absences, note-takers, alternative grading rubrics and a host of other items that basically make a class easier for the student.

All of this costs money—higher tuition, taxes and health insurance. For example, the test for ADHD is not based on lab results but on a psychological evaluation, which can cost more than $2,000, with individual counseling sessions at $100 to $150 an hour.

The administration for such students has grown astronomically at universities. I recently inquired about an accommodation for a student and was told there were simply too many students to evaluate each class. Therefore, I received a form letter for a student that had virtually nothing to do with the course I teach. Moreover, no one had counseled the student about whether journalism was a good subject to study for someone who had difficulty meeting deadlines and taking notes.

It’s time to follow the intent of the law rather than to allow these unintended consequences to continue. Colleges and universities should make “reasonable accommodations” to allow students to participate in courses, programs and activities. Reasonable accommodations–not extraordinary ones–are what the law prescribes.


Christopher Harper, a longtime journalist with The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and The Washington Times, teaches media law. Read more at www.mediamashup.org

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