UGA freshman Karla Dougan is among the students balancing weekly therapy appointments with studies. She is still in recovery from a car accident two years ago. 
Photo: Courtesy of Karla Dougan
Photo: Courtesy of Karla Dougan

UGA changes honor rules to include more students with disabilities

As fathers of children who suffered traumatic brain injuries, Scott Dougan and Chris Byrne know how hard their daughters work to keep up with their studies at the University of Georgia and continue the therapies vital to their recoveries.

A UGA cellular biology professor, Dougan said his daughter, who has still not regained full use of her legs and uses a wheelchair after a devastating car accident two years ago, undergoes intense therapy four times a week.

Byrne’s daughter, struck by a car as a high school senior in January of 2013 in Athens, still copes with memory and vision impairment and debilitating stretches of no sleep at all – as long as 9-10 days in length. She, too, also has extensive weekly rehab.

These two Athens fathers don’t portray their daughters as victims, but as fighters – continuing with their dreams to be UGA students despite only being physically able to take one to three classes a semester. 

The two men felt UGA ought to recognize students with serious health challenges for their efforts. 

So, Byrne began a campaign to prod UGA to change its policy only allowing students with full course loads to be Presidential Scholars or make Dean's list. 

Byrne wrote to UGA leadership about his daughter’s high GPA, explaining, “But despite this extraordinary work, she will not receive any recognition from the university as a Presidential Scholar or on the Dean's list. Why? Because she is physically unable to take more than 9 hours a semester. So, my question is this: since she has taken 9 hours this semester, which is considered full time for a disabled student, is there any way within the system that she can be recognized for her academic achievements?”

Last week, the UGA University Council changed the policy so now students approved by the UGA Disabilities Resource Center to carry a reduced caseload for documented medical reasons such as brain injury or cancer can qualify for academic honors. UGA President Jere Morehead signed onto the policy Tuesday.

Byrne shared his many email exchanges over this last year with UGA officials, all of whom agreed with his sentiment, but suggested the wheels of bureaucracy may not move as fast as he might like. 

That is when Byrne sought out Dougan, who understood firsthand the struggles students with brain injuries face. Dougan enlisted his colleague in the Department of Cellular Biology Mark Farmer, who serves on the University Council, and the pace quickened. 

“Most professors, myself included before my daughter’s accident, don’t have a clue how to deal with students who have brain injuries and what their challenges are,” said Dougan in a phone interview. “No one had ever thought about this situation. Being able to attend school with their peers is an important part of their recovery. If we want people with brain injuries to be able to be a functioning part of society, they need an education.”

In talking with UGA, Byrne emphasized,  “If disabled students are truly seen by university administrators as part of the university and student body, the school should find ways to include, not exclude, them from academic recognition."

At the time the car struck her on Milledge Avenue in downtown Athens, Byrnes’ daughter was dual enrolled at UGA and ranked sixth in her high school class. Her severe injuries kept her hospitalized from January to July in the ICU and then in rehab at Shepherd Center. Her goal throughout: Graduate high school and resume her studies, already underway as a dual-enrolled high schooler at the University of Georgia. She started UGA in the spring semester of 2014. 

It has not been easy, said Byrne. “I don’t think anyone understands how hard it is energy-wise just to come to class for these students,” he said. “They are working harder than full-time students taking 15 hours but were getting no recognition or encouragement.”

Now that UGA has made this move, Byrne has reached out to his alma maters, Le Moyne College and Niagara University, to ask them to consider making similar changes at their schools.

Dougan’s daughter Karla is negotiating the challenges of UGA with her trademark drive and spirit, becoming one of the handful of students in a wheelchair to rush a sorority, said her father. Dougan praised the sororities for making it possible for Karla to participate in pledge activities since many of the houses are not wheelchair accessible. He said students with brain injuries often isolate themselves.

By the way, Karla made an excellent video for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety on the dangers of driving and texting. Show it to your teens. I’ve done so with mine.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.