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/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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