By Sara Hoover
Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State, and students at the University of Memphis
are keeping that legacy alive by providing a helping hand to one another. Each semester
more than 100 U of M students provide volunteer note-taking services to students with
disabilities. Their generosity helps the University keep costs down while providing
quality accommodations to fellow students.
Disability Resources for Students, at the U of M since 1978, provides access to all
programs and activities for students with disabilities. The mission is to educate
the campus community about disability, to educate students with disabilities about
available accommodations and to teach them how to navigate the University.
The office has supplied note-takers since its inception. Who receives these services
“Initially, probably the majority of the students registered with the office had physical
disabilities,” said Susan Te Paske, director of Disability Resources for Students.
“So, if a person’s hands didn’t operate to take notes, then we would find them a note-taker.
Students with cognitive disabilities like learning disabilities and sometimes the
effects of attention deficit disorder, when those students came to the University
in bigger numbers, then we started providing note-takers for those students. It’s
not a high percentage and it’s directly related to the functional limitations of the
Shortly after Te Paske became director, she looked into shifting from paid note-takers
to volunteer ones. In 2004, volunteer note-takers were phased in and since then 1,725
volunteers have taken notes for a fellow classmate. An average of 150 students volunteer
every semester depending on class needs, and sometimes as many as 250.
“I determined that we had fabulous students here who are very giving, and that we
could probably recruit students instead of paying them. The payment would be more
related to being able to put this on a resume and cite volunteer work for a fellow
student. That’s proven to be true. We have great students at the U of M and they are
really very helpful.”
Volunteers are recruited through classes that need note-takers. The office requests
those class lists in order of highest GPA to lowest and starts by contacting students
at the top of the list. After the student agrees to be a note-taker, they sign a contract
with the office and go over a few guidelines. Both the note-taker and the student
with the disability provide feedback at the end of the semester. If note-takers need
service hours for a scholarship, their hours are documented.
The note-takers take notes with the help of unique equipment. Most note-takers use
non-carbon copy packets to write notes and immediately give copies to the student
with the disability at the end of class. For students with visual impairments, note-takers
are asked to type the notes so programs like screen readers can be used. Some students
already use a laptop in class or go home and type up their notes. For those that don’t,
Disability Resources for Students provides a camera pen. It converts handwriting to
typed text. Then, the note-taker can load it into the computer, look at and determine
if it needs any modification and then e-mail it to the student.
“We bought two,” said Phil Minyard, technology coordinator in Disability Resources
for Students, of the camera pens. “I figured we had wasted our money because it wasn’t
going to work. We tried it out and it really works well. We’ll employ 10 of them in
the fall. The software will come up as side-by-side images – the writing and the text
so you can look back and forth – and do your corrections. It’s 90 percent accurate
in understanding everything you write which is really high.”
Anna Marie Smothers, a senior in elementary education, does note-taking for a visually-impaired
student in her biology class and biology lab.
Anna Marie Smothers
“I received an e-mail and thought, ‘Why not?’” said Smothers. “I didn’t respond initially
and then I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this?’ and then thought somebody else has already
taken it. I was really surprised when I found out they had a difficult time recruiting
At first, Smothers didn’t connect the note-taking to her future teaching career.
“I don’t know if I’ll have someone with visual impairment in my own class, but it
certainly helps me understand differential instruction and what it takes to accommodate
Smothers handwrites the notes in class, types them and then e-mails them within three
days to the student, Disability Resources for Students and a person at the library
who converts the notes into Braille.
Although Smothers could have used the camera pen, she found typing them more helpful
to herself and the other student.
“In this class, the professor’s notes are totally separate online and I’m just filling
in little spots here and there, and I wanted it to be full sentences and make sense
when the student reads it later. I spend time looking at the diagrams, using words
and trying to give her a picture. It’s beneficial to me any time I read my notes or
Judiac Studies major Jordan McDugle needed a little faith to guide him toward being
a note-taker. The sophomore, born in Honduras and raised in Memphis, received an e-mail
request to be a note-taker but figured somebody else would do it.
“The teacher announced, ‘We really need a note-taker for this class.’ I call myself
a Christian and my Judaic Studies major has been really cool in that I learn about
God’s command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Learning the Hebrew translation,
it’s, ‘Love others as that is who you are,’ that is what you were created for. So,
I really got convicted of my faith and not showing as much love as I could. I wanted
to do it. This is a practical way I can serve somebody else.”
McDugle is taking notes for his Hebrew and History of the Jewish People classes for
“Actually, it turns out I know two of the people I’m taking notes for from outside
of class. I already knew them, so it’s pretty cool.” In his first semester as a note-taker,
McDugle is using the camera pen.
“It was intimidating when they showed (the pen) to me,” said McDugle. “I’m not very
technologically inclined, but the pen is great. It’s a spiral notebook with little
microdots, and it all works together. You plug the pen into the computer and it reads
and transfers it. I have messy handwriting, so it doesn’t read everything that I write.
I have to go through and correct some stuff, but it’s great. It gives you a complete
readout of what your page looks like in your handwriting, your scribble is on there.
Then, there’s another program that transfers it to text from your writing.”
Last semester, McDugle was a conversation partner for foreign exchange students at
the U of M.
McDugle’s turnaround time for the notes varies.
“I’m only using the pen in one class. The History of the Jewish People class, our
exam that we need the notes for isn’t until the end of the semester, so I’m doing
that in giant chunks. Then, the Hebrew class since most of the notes are Hebrew, the
pen wouldn’t read them. So, I’m actually using the transfer pad. With that, I just
take the notes and give it to the student that day.”
Freshman Kelle Isabel is no stranger to volunteering. While in high school, she
would go to classrooms with students with disabilities and interact with them. She
helped the elderly and disadvantaged children, and is now a veteran note-taker in
her second semester.
“I love it. I love it,” said Isabel, a journalism major. “The people that I take notes
for, they usually say very nice things. They really appreciate it a lot. You can tell
it’s sincere. They know it’s not something that I have to do, I’m just doing it. I
enjoy it a lot.”
Last semester, Isabel was a note-taker in her African- American literature class and
this semester for her psychology class. She uses the transfer pad.
“They asked me at the beginning did I prefer typing my notes,” said Isabel. “I really
like the actual physical writing, especially in class. It makes me pay attention more
and focus. I try to focus as much as I can when it’s just my work, but when you’re
being held accountable for someone else’s work, it just makes you feel like you have
to do it. I really prefer the carbon copy. I love to write anyways, so it just makes
it that much more easier.”
With the notepad method, Isabel is able to pass the notes to the student at the end
of class. If she has additional notes, she’ll spend an extra day and give them back
the next day.
The experience is also honing Isabel’s skills for her journalism career.
“Trying to remember as much as you can, it kind of relates to journalism because I
actually want to go into broadcasting. Being able to see something, jot down everything
you remember and relay that in a way that somebody else can understand, not just you,
I think it does relate.”
Isabel said she would volunteer again and got involved to make a difference.
“In high school, we did a lot of community service and helping people, and it’s just
a good feeling,” Isabel said. “I have to take the notes anyway for the class, and
I know that the person is not able to do it. I would hope that someone would take
the time to take notes for me if I couldn’t.
“Another reason why I chose to do note-taking is because it does make a difference.
I just feel like the impact that I have with such a small thing like that, it could
potentially turn into something much greater, something much bigger than myself.”