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Leveling the playing field

UGA students with disabilities achieve academic success with help from the Disability Resource Center

by Allyson Mann (MA '92)

Harry Potter helped Brad Held graduate from UGA.

In 2004 Held (BSAB ’06) and his wife Ulla were driving back from Miami, where they had been visiting her parents. To pass the time, Held read aloud from The Order of the Phoenix—the fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series—while Ulla drove.

Occasionally, Held recalls, Ulla asked him to repeat or clarify something he read. She had noticed patterns: Held omitted words like “the” or “with” and used incorrect pronouns, referring to Harry as “she,” for example. So Ulla suggested that her husband get tested for a learning disability.

It wasn’t the first time the suggestion had been made. Held twice had flunked out of UGA. The first time he didn’t work hard enough, Held admits. But the second time he’d been more mature and focused—and it hadn’t made a difference.

So when he was diagnosed, a few months later, with multiple learning disorders that included dyslexia, it was a life-changing experience.

“Knowing that there was something holding me back and now I could do something about it was a tremendous relief,” he says. “It was a huge burden off my shoulders.”

Held was readmitted to UGA on academic probation, and he registered with UGA’s Disability Resource Center. With the accommodations it provided, he earned good grades and was taken off probation within one semester. Held graduated in December 2006—11 years after he’d originally enrolled in college—with a degree in applied biotechnology.


UGA’s Disability Resource Center was created in 2004 when the Learning Disability Center and Disability Services merged into one office. Although it was the first time these services had been combined, UGA had long been dealing with the issues.

In 1987, student Beth Baily sued UGA based on differing services for students with learning disabilities and those with physical disabilities. In 1988, student David Bliss got out of his wheelchair to crawl up the stairs at the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, which housed the office of disability services but had no elevator. By the time the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, UGA had already created a task force to investigate the issues.

“The student advocacy prior to the ADA made a big difference,” says DRC Director Karen Kalivoda (AB ’83, MEd ’85, EdD ’91), then director of Disability Services. The day after Bliss’ protest, Kalivoda’s office was moved to the first floor.

Today the Disability Resource Center, now housed in Clark Howell Hall, promotes equal educational opportunities and a welcoming academic, physical and social environment for students with disabilities. The center offers assistance including a computer lab with special access technology, electronic texts in mp3 format, a note-taking service, sign language interpreters, priority registration and testing facilities, among others. Students registering with DRC present a documented diagnosis from a qualified professional. After the diagnosis is reviewed, a DRC disability specialist determines which services should be made available to the student. These accommodations can make the difference between a student earning a degree or facing dismissal.

“These students just need a little flexibility and support,” Kalivoda says. “Just something simple and they can still stay in college.”

The DRC serves about 1,500 students with learning, physical and psychological disabilities—dozens of different conditions including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, multiple sclerosis, acquired brain injury, visual impair-ment, depression, cancer, lupus, cystic fibrosis and neurological disabilities. vDRC specialists have caseloads of up to several hundred students; each receives an individual evaluation. Their tasks include scheduling classes in buildings that are physically accessible, securing texts in alternative formats and reevaluating accommodations for students with degenerative conditions. They also work to educate faculty, teaching assistants and students about the services available through DRC.


Baily’s lawsuit was thrown out when UGA reconsidered its policies. She earned an undergraduate degree, spent 10 years working and then enrolled in graduate school at UGA. But a year into her coursework, Baily (BSEd ’95) again found herself in a tough situation. One of her professors was balking at accommodating her needs despite being presented with DRC paperwork that documented her dyslexia. While discussing the situation, the professor repeatedly questioned why she needed accommodation.

“I was tired, deeply offended and hurt by his response,” says Baily. “I asked myself if this professor deserved an answer. The answer was no.”

Convinced that the professor would not easily or comfortably do any of the things she requested, Baily dropped the class.

Most professors are helpful. Professor Michael Lacy made special arrangements for junior Sarah Masoero to accompany her poultry science class on a field trip off campus.

“He buckled me into the van on his hands and knees,” says Masoero, a HOPE scholar who uses a wheelchair due to a congenital condition called arthrogryposis. “He made sure I could go by driving me himself. He really cared that I could go on the field trip like everyone else.”

But Baily’s experience is a good example of the doubt faced by students with “invisible” disabilities—conditions that can’t be seen. Five or six times a semester, DRC specialists are called in to mediate a situation like Baily’s. Sometimes the situation is simply a misunderstanding and is easily resolved, but sometimes not.

“There’s still a lot of ignorance around,” says DRC Assistant Director Margaret Totty (MEd ’81).

UGA is legally required to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. So the DRC not only advocates for the students, but it also protects faculty and UGA against legal action. And at the same time, DRC specialists are teaching students with disabilities to advocate for themselves.

Senior Disability Specialist Daley Connelly (BSEd ’92, MEd ’95) conducts role-playing exercises with students, and she sometimes accompanies them to meetings with faculty.

“I’m as involved as they need me to be, to a certain extent,” Connelly says, “but I’m not here to do it for them—because I can’t.”

Brad Held remembers the first time he approached a professor to ask for accommodations.

“I felt like I was asking the bank for free money,” he says.

But after several years of practice, Held enrolled in a study abroad program in Australia—where he single-handedly negotiated the accommodations he needed. By DRC’s definition, that’s success.

“When a student graduates, we want them to be able to ask for what they need,” says Disability Specialist Leigh Jagor (BSA ’77).

The students registered at the DRC must meet the same academic standards as any UGA student, but they face additional challenges.

Sophomore and HOPE scholar Alex Rebitch has a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis and is on the list to receive a liver transplant. His condition causes daily fatigue, and sometimes a protein buildup in his blood affects his ability to concentrate. Occasionally he gets infections that require hospitalization.

“There are people out there on our campus earning degrees under very difficult circumstances,” says Paul Kurtz, associate dean and J. Alton Hosch Professor of Law.

Kurtz was given the DRC’s Outstanding Faculty Member Award after being nominated by Michelle Tarley (JD ’07). Tarley has been legally blind for 10 years following an unexplained buildup of fluid in her optic nerve.

“It’s not courage. I don’t have a choice,” she says. “I either go on with my life or curl up in a corner in a dark room.”

The accommodations provided to students like Rebitch and Tarley aren’t intended to give them an advantage over other students—they’re intended to erase their disadvantages, allowing them to compete on more equal ground.

Baily, who was first diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school, has had years of experience explaining a condition that has many nuances and subtleties.

“English is a foreign language to me,” she says.

Baily has difficulty correctly inter-preting clusters of letters that form the sounds that make words—she needs to both see and hear a word for it to be processed properly. She remembers taking an anatomy test and struggling to remember the name of a particular muscle. She knew the beginning and ending of the word, she knew where the muscle was located in the body, and she could explain that it was a long, strap-like muscle that lifts the thigh—but she couldn’t remember that it was named the sartorious muscle.

This is where a word list, one of her accommodations, makes all the difference. A word list is simply what it sounds like—a list of words, with no definitions or other information included.

Having the words in front of her allows Baily to focus on answering the questions correctly rather than struggling to put together the sounds that form the words. On her first anatomy test she earned a C, but on her second test—when she used a word list—she earned an A.

“It’s like magic,” Baily says.


Lauren Kelly died in 1992, just before she would have graduated with a degree in family and consumer sciences. Kelly had cystic fibrosis and often spent school holidays in the hospital getting treatments that she referred to as “tune-ups.” The DRC helped her to keep up and made sure that her classes and parking were accessible.

“If it hadn’t been for the things they do there, she wouldn’t have been able to be there,” says Nancy Wech, her mother. “Those things made an immeasurable difference.”

After her death, Kelly’s degree was awarded posthumously and her family established the Lauren Melissa Kelly Award in her honor. The award provides $500 to $1,000 to a student registered with the DRC. This year’s recipient is Alex Rebitch.

“If a student that receives this learns anything about her, I would hope this would open their eyes to their own potential,” Wech says. “She was a cut above when it came to self-esteem. She was able to be her own best advocate most of the time.”

Brad Held, after learning to advocate for himself, is now helping others by working as an adaptive technology assistant at the DRC.

“Without this department, I would probably still be struggling through school,” Held says. “That’s why I’m happy to work here. I see what kind of difference they’re making for the student.”

Get more Disability Resource Center:
Become an Organ Donor Visit
Donate Contact Karen Kalivoda at or 706/542-8719

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Click on image to enlarge

Held assists student Allison Lloyd in the assistive technology lab at UGA’s Disability Resource Center. The lab houses 11 computers with programs designed for people with visual, hearing, cognitive and mobility impairments. Students with ADHD and learning disabilities benefit from software programs designed to address spelling and writing difficulties. photo by Robert Newcomb

Junior Sarah Masoero works in the lab led by Julie Moore, an associate professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases. Masoero hopes to earn a degree in veterinary medicine after graduating in 2009. photo by Robert Newcomb

Kevin Karneboge signs during a math class taught by Calvin Burgoyne. The DRC's sign language interpreters take voiced English information and interpret it into American Sign Language (ASL) and also interpret ASL to voiced English. photo by Nancy Evelyn