Student Resources: Online Learning for Students with Disabilities

Online Learning For
Students With Disabilities
A complete guide to distance learning for students with disabilities. Learn how to work with disability services, employ assistive technology, evaluate online programs, and succeed in the virtual classroom.

Author Bio

Margarita Barresi

Margarita Barresi writes frequently about higher education topics. She has worked as a higher education administrator at two universities and has a daughter in college and one on the way.

Expert Sources

Many thanks to the following experts who shared their knowledge and experience for the guidebook:

  • Alex Axelsson, Assistive Technology Manager
  • Terra Beethe , Faculty Development Coordinator
  • Michael Bray, Research Assistant
  • Sheryl Burgstahler, Director, Accessible Technology
  • Dave Cillay, Vice President
  • Lex Frieden, Professor
  • Brian Goetz, Assistive Technology Specialist
  • Jim Gorske, Assistant Dean, Director Disability Resource Center
  • Nancy Hale, Professor of Computer Science and Information Systems
  • Barbara Hammer, Director, Office of Disability Services
  • Anne L. Jannarone, Director, Center for Educational Access
  • Judith Kolar, Director, Center for Students with Disabilities
  • Michele McCandless, Director, Disability Services Program
  • E.J. Miranda, University Spokesperson
  • Kenton L. Oliff, Assistant Vice-President for Student Affairs
  • Karen Pettus, Director
  • Javier Reyes, Vice Provost for Distance Education
  • Brian Richwine, Manager
  • Wesley Satterwhite, Director of Disability Services
  • Wendy Steele, Multimedia Designer and Web Accessibility Coordinator
  • Brian Schultz, Director of Student Accessibility Services
  • Matt Trybus, Assistant Director
  • Gretchen E. Steil Weiss, Learning Specialist

Introduction

Online programs today benefit from advances in technology and offer rigorous curricula that rival those of in-classroom programs. The freedom to learn from anywhere at any time, and often at a student’s own pace, is attractive to many. But for students with disabilities, online learning can offer additional advantages. The College Database gathered input from more than 20 college and university disability services and online learning experts to compile the latest information on:

  • Advantages and challenges of online learning for students with disabilities
  • What schools are doing to facilitate online learning accessibility
  • Helpful technology for online learners with disabilities
  • Questions to ask when evaluating an online program
  • Tips for online learning success

What is a Disability?

The U.S. Dept of Education defines a disability as “a physical or mental condition that causes functional limitations that substantially limit one or more major life activities, including mobility, communication (seeing, hearing, speaking), and learning.” Most people, when asked to envision a person with a disability, tend to think of someone in a wheelchair or someone who has difficulty getting around. Yet, according to Judith Kolar, director of DePaul University’s Center for Students with Disabilities, of the 800 students the center serves, most have invisible disabilities. These are disabilities that are not readily apparent, number in the hundreds, and range from learning disabilities to mental disorders to chronic illnesses.

The most recent U.S. Department of Education data indicates there are approximately 700,000 undergraduate college students with a disability, categorized as follows:

  • Specific learning disabilities 31%
  • ADD and ADHD 18%
  • Physical health conditions 18%
  • Mental or psychiatric conditions 11%
  • Difficulty hearing or seeing 7%
  • Other 11%

A plethora of disabilities fall into these categories, including:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Asperger/Autism
  • Blindness/Low Vision
  • Brain Injury
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Chronic and Severe Illnesses, such AIDS, COPD and cancer
  • Dexterity Difficulties
  • Dyslexia
  • Hearing impairments
  • Mobility impairments
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Seizure Disorder
  • Social Phobia
  • Speech impairments
  • Spinal cord injuries

The following resources offer additional information about what constitutes a disability, and about the number of college students with a disability.

This U.S. Department of Education report provides the most recent national data about students with disabilities, the services and accommodations schools provide, institutional policies regarding students with disabilities, and various aspects of institutional accessibility.

The CDC provides a brief primer about different categories of disabilities, with links to more information about specific disabilities.

Disability.gov is the federal government website for people with disabilities and those who serve them. It offers information about disability benefits, health care, housing programs, and resources for students making the transition from high school to college.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health offers detailed information on a variety of disabilities.

Disabilities and Online Learning:
Challenges and Opportunities

Because the spectrum of disabilities is so broad, different aspects of online learning benefit some disabilities more than others.

“For many students, the very fact that a course is online meets many of their access needs,” says Brian Schultz, director of Student Accessibility Services at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. “For example, someone with a mental health issue who has difficulty being around other people will obviously benefit from studying at home. Students with chronic health conditions where class attendance can be an issue, also benefit from the flexibility of online learning. These students won’t need special accommodations to take an online course, and online learning provides them with an opportunity to complete their coursework.”

If a student’s disability is visible, a virtual classroom provides a certain degree of anonymity, so students don’t feel singled out as being “different.” Some students with disabilities find it easier to communicate with professors and fellow students online than in person. Students who have difficulty processing information benefit from the ability to watch and re-watch lectures, videos, and other online course content. And, of course, e-learning eliminates the physical challenges of getting around campus for many students with physical disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs.

“Technology holds the promise to provide a universally accessible experience that often is not available in the traditional classroom environment,” says Brian Richwine, manager of Indiana University’s Assistive Technology and Accessibility Centers. “In a traditional course, for instance, a visually impaired student will need to arrange for the print materials (textbooks, handouts, exams) to be converted into an accessible format, and often needs a sighted assistant and note taking services. In an online course, careful planning for accessibility can ensure that the instructional materials, technologies, and teaching methods used significantly reduce or eliminate the need for such ad-hoc conversion. Electronic documents that are born accessible, videos that are captioned and described, and accessible platforms for providing course content can provide ‘same time, same place’ access for all students.”

Professor Nancy Hale at Pace University agrees. “The concept of online learning is providing 24/7 access to a rich college experience for some who may not have had access in the past,” says Hale. “But it’s important to have the materials available in as many different formats as possible to accommodate the learner’s needs, because the very technology that provides access to many can also create barriers for others.”

The Sloan Consortium looks at the benefits of online learning, as well as specific factors that currently limit accessibility.

How Online Schools Meet the Needs
of Students with Disabilities

A 2008 amendment to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that qualified people with disabilities have access to public programs and services, including those offered on the Internet. This means that if a student with a disability enrolls in an online learning course, the course should be made accessible to him or her. The ADA, however, has not provided any specific accommodation standards. Thus, it’s up to each school to determine how far to go to serve its population of students with disabilities.

With disabilities encompassing such a broad spectrum, creating educational content that is easily accessible to all presents significant challenges. Yet many universities see it as their moral duty to exceed ADA requirements. “The law is a starting point from which we should operate,” says Matt Trybus assistant director at James Madison University’s Office of Disability Services. “We have a moral and ethical imperative to create accessible environments and go above and beyond legal compliance.”

Dave Cillay, vice president at Washington State University’s Global Campus also believes access is both a legal right and an ethical responsibility. “We were founded as a land grant university, which means our job has long been to remove any barriers-whether distance or disabilities-that come between students and their education,” he says.

University-Wide Effort

Those in the field agree that providing access for all requires commitment and involvement from multiple facets of the university. “It takes the whole university to address online access, not just the disability office, as it usually is when addressing campus accessibility,” says Jim Gorske of the University of Florida’s Disability Resource Center. “The university needs to come together versus taking a piecemeal approach.”

Rutgers University, for example, created an Online Accessibility Committee to develop best practices for making online courses accessible. The committee is tasked with ensuring consistent accessibility and usability for all students enrolled in online courses. Rutgers now adheres to the following rubrics from the Quality Matters Program, a national benchmark for online course design:

  • The course contains equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content
  • The course design facilitates readability and minimizes distractions
  • The course design accommodates the use of assistive technologies

The University of South Carolina has also formed a university-wide committee and utilizes the Quality Matters rubric. “As a committee we decided to establish a minimum expectation for each course. All materials must be readable by screen readers and all videos or audio files must be captioned or, at a minimum, we must provide a transcript for students to read,” says USC. “Rather than ‘retro-fitting’ a course when a student enrolls, accessibility is expected of each course from the start.”

At the University of Missouri, Disability Services providers work collaboratively with other campus units, such as IT and/or Educational Technology, to establish basic expectations regarding the development of online courses, including curriculum and the use of various platforms and software.

“Many, but not all of the barriers for students with disabilities result from the type of software or tools used, so awareness of how accessible a software system is can be critical to accessibility. Developing protocol for how to address inaccessible programs is essential,” says Barbara Hammer, director of the Office of Disability Services at the University of Missouri.

For many, this is a new way of doing things.

“In the past, a student would contact the disability office about a course and the office would then make the course accessible for that particular student. Often, that meant students with disabilities would have access to materials one or two weeks after everyone else. They were always playing catch up,” says Karen Pettus, director of Student Disability Services at the University of South Carolina. “By making material accessible from the start, all students have the same amount of time to prepare and participate. This is crucial when a faculty member is trying to establish a learning community and getting students to interact with each other.”

Faculty Training and Resources

For many schools, taking a university-wide approach includes helping instructors understand the needs of students with disabilities and how they can help meet those needs by creating accessible materials. Professors should know, for example, how to make a Word document accessible to someone using a screen reader. At Wayne State University, the Office of Teaching and Learning is very active in training faculty about assistive technologies. And, at several schools, this type of training is now mandatory.

“Indiana University is developing mandatory training for instructors and course developers to educate them about the needs of students with disabilities, the creation of accessible instructional materials, how to take advantage of the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in their teaching methodology, and how to use technologies in an accessible manner to ensure inclusive learning environments,” says Richwine. “This includes supporting faculty by providing access to training materials and consultants who can help them understand and address the accessibility of their courses.”

The University of South Carolina takes a slightly different approach. “We want faculty to be content area experts, not web development experts or accessibility experts,” says Pettus. “When students have unique needs, we work with the student and the faculty member to ensure that these needs are met. Often our AT coordinators are added to the Blackboard course so they can see the syllabus and work with faculty and the student to make sure that materials are available as soon as possible.”

At Washington State University (WSU), Access Center advisors work with individual students to determine reasonable accommodations for online courses, and the WSU Global Campus works closely with the WSU Access Center and instructors to ensure student accommodations are being met. These types of initiatives, of course, require resources. Student services, IT, faculty training, and other departments must be reasonably staffed as they work together to ensure the needs of the school’s students with disabilities are being appropriately met.

Universal Design

Since one size does not fit all disabilities, how does a university provide simultaneous access to all? Enter the concept of Universal Design (UD). When creating a product or environment, designers typically focus on the average user. Universal Design, on the other hand, strives to create products and environments that are, to the greatest extent possible, usable by all people without the need for special adaptation.

Applying UD principles to online course design enables universities to deal with accessibility issues upfront. It means the school is aiming to make the course as accessible as possible for people with a range of abilities, learning styles, and other characteristics. “Developing accessible course content from the start is extremely important,” says Anne Jannarone, director of the University of Arkansas’ Center for Educational Access. “This may reduce or even eliminate the need for a student to request accommodations for the course. It can also alleviate the stress on faculty to retrofit a course while in progress.”

UD is critical when it comes to Learning Management Systems (LMS), the software applications, such as Blackboard or Akai, schools use to deliver online learning. Universities are partnering with LMS companies to develop accessible products. “Higher education institutions are ensuring that the software applications and educational materials they use are accessible. Software companies must test and provide an accessible product, otherwise institutions will not purchase it,” says Terra Beethe, faculty development coordinator at Bellevue University.

“At Indiana University, we work with key learning technology vendors to determine where accessibility limitations are present, and then to ensure that plans are in place to provide equal access and to develop roadmaps for addressing accessibility issues,” says Indiana University’s Richwine. “This work takes place both independently at our school and collaboratively by universities working together through organizations like the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), working groups within professional associations like the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN), and other informal collaborative efforts.”

At Western Illinois University, staff at the Disability Resource Center work with faculty to incorporate principles of Universal Design into course planning. Faculty are asked to review their course plans to ensure videos are captioned, all material is accessible via a screen reader, and that everyone in the learning community is included. “Best practices are those that strive to design courses and environments in a way that is accessible to the largest group possible, and this applies to online classes as well. We encourage the faculty to work with our office to make sure that course plans are including everyone to the greatest extent possible,” says Gretchen Steil Weiss of Western Illinois University’s Disability Resource Center.

Experts agree, however, that when it comes to online learning, Universal Design is really an ideal to work toward. Not every barrier can be eliminated. The goal is to remove as many obstacles as possible so that accessibility is less of an issue, even though some students will still require special modifications on an ongoing basis.

The official government site for information and technical assistance on the American with Disabilities Act.

The Quality Matters Rubric is the most widely used set of standards for the design of online and blended courses at the college level.

Information about Universal Design principles as they apply to education, with a section about postsecondary education and UDL.

The DO-IT program at the University of Washington, in a collaborative project with other postsecondary institutions, has identified ten indicators of accessible distance learning programs.

Types of Accommodations

In general, online schools provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. It’s important for students to register with a school’s office of disability services and submit any necessary documentation from doctors, psychologists, or other diagnosticians in order to receive accommodations. The earlier students do this, the more time the school has to arrange any necessary accommodation.

“When an accommodation request is registered in the Disability Access Services database, we follow up with the course professors and instructors to gather the syllabus, course material, media, and any other teaching tools,” says Alex Axelsson, assistive technology manager at Oregon State University. “We then start the process of making the materials accessible based on the accommodation request. The material is delivered in a timely manner so that the student, online or on campus, has the same access as their peers.”

Oregon State also offers priority class registration to students who need accommodations that require advance preparation. “This allows staff in Disability Access Services to contact Ecampus personnel and inquire, for example, if the online course contains auditory components or embedded media that require captioning. If so, this is completed prior to the beginning of the term,” says Axelsson.

Typical accommodations made by schools include:

  • Allowing extra time for tests
  • Providing captions or transcripts for all videos
  • Ensuring assignments and PDFs are readable by assistive technology software
  • Providing text descriptions for images and graphics so that assistive software can read the image
  • Offering textbooks in alternative formats: eTexts, audio, PDF, enlarged print, and Braille
  • Creating screen reader-compatible web content
  • Creating accessible Word documents
  • Allowing for a variety of interfaces: keyboard, mouse, voice

Schools try to anticipate needs as much as possible. At Washington State University’s Global Campus, Wendy Steele, multimedia designer and web accessibility coordinator, makes sure online courses emphasize:

  • Clear and consistent site navigation
  • Strong content organization
  • Alternative text for diagrams and graphics
  • Legible web fonts
  • Text that can be zoomed
  • Recognizable links
  • Good color contrast
  • Alternate ways to convey meaning besides using color
  • Properly tagged PDFs and documents
  • Site pages that can be navigated using only the keyboard
  • Transcripts for media
  • An option to use a built-in text-to-speech tool to read online course content

But sometimes students need more. Javier Reyes, vice provost for distance education at the University of Arkansas says, “It’s important to work with each student on a case-by-case basis, because for some, the solution isn’t as easy as providing captions. We need to understand the specific issues each student faces.”

An overview of the university’s available services for increasing accessibility.

Examples of accommodations and assistive technology the university offers.

Assistive Learning Technology for
Online Students with Disabilities

Accommodations often work hand-in-hand with assistive technologies. Says Kenton L. Olliff, assistant vice president for student affairs at Fort Hayes State University, “Students need to have technology to access the courses, and the university needs to ensure that the courses are accessible to the student.” Many students with disabilities will already be familiar with assistive tools, but if not, they will likely need to learn to use them in order to effectively participate in online learning programs. Most schools provide training and technical support related to assistive technologies, and some, like the University of Florida, are making these sometimes-costly technologies available to students.

Assistive technologies can be categorized into four main categories, those that assist people who have:

  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing impairments
  • Physical impairments
  • Cognitive disabilities

Assistive Technology for Online Students with Visual Impairments

Blind students and those with low vision use screen reading software that converts text into synthesized speech, sound icons, or Braille. The screen reader identifies and interprets what is displayed on the screen and can guide users through completing certain tasks, such as filling out online forms or navigating a pages. JAWS and ZoomText are two popular screen readers.

Screen readers are limited in that they cannot read images, which is why it’s important that course designers provide text descriptions for images and graphics. Blind persons are also unable to effectively use a mouse, because they cannot see where to point on the screen, so schools often accommodate for these users by providing alternative interfaces.

A Braille display device attaches to a computer keyboard and allows a blind person to read the information on the screen one text line at a time in the form of Braille characters. This kind of display can be particularly useful to blind users dealing with math content or computer programming codes. The Focus Braille Displays from Freedom Scientific offer several options.

Screen magnifiers are another helpful tool for students with low vision. This type of software allows them to significantly increase the size of text and graphics on the monitor display. An example is Magnifier, which is available for free.

Assistive Technology for Online Students with Hearing Impairments

Schools are increasingly providing captioning for online lectures, videos, and other audio-intensive content. This not only benefits students with hearing disabilities, it also helps those who learn best when seeing as well as hearing words. Many deaf students also utilize speech-to-text software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Assistive Technology for Online Students with Physical Impairments

Students with physical disabilities might have limited motor control, missing limbs, joint problems, and slower response times. The major barrier for these students is the inability to use a standard mouse or keyboard. Most will already be familiar with using assistive technologies, such as:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Oversize and/or trackball mouse
  • Mouth stick
  • Head wand
  • Keyboard customized to a person’s range of hand motion

Assistive Technology for Online Students with Cognitive Disabilities

A person who suffers from a cognitive disability generally has greater difficulty with one or more mental tasks than the average person. This is a broad category that ranges from dyslexia to Attention Deficit Disorder. Many of the tools designed to help those with other disabilities also provide benefits for people with cognitive disabilities.

For example:

  • Screen readers assist students who learn better by hearing than reading
  • Text to speech software helps students who benefit from hearing and seeing the text at the same time
  • Screen magnification software enables users to focus on a few page items at a time

The Accessible Technology Coalition provides people with disabilities with accurate answers to their technology questions so they can identify appropriate solutions to their needs.

The Sloan Consortium offers an overview of assistive technologies, who they benefit, and what they do.

Evaluating an Online Learning Program

Students with disabilities have many factors to consider when selecting an online program. First and foremost, they should evaluate the program from an academic standpoint, just as any student would. Students will also need to determine whether online learning in general is a good option for them. A common misconception is that online courses are easier than classroom-based ones. Educators caution students to not confuse “flexible” with “easy.” Online learning at reputable schools can be equally, and sometimes even more, rigorous than classroom learning.

Because students often complete courses at their own pace, online learning requires a great degree of motivation and self-discipline. Students are accountable to themselves, not to a professor taking attendance. Successful students schedule time to complete classwork and assignments and to participate in class discussions or team projects, ensuring they keep up with the pace of the course. Sometimes online students are surprised by the time commitment online classes require.

If a student with a disability determines he or she is a good candidate for online study, and has found a course or program that meets his or her educational goals, then it’s time to evaluate the course in terms of accessibility. “Not all online courses are the same,” says University of Texas Professor Lex Freiden. “Prospective students need to check to be sure that the platform the school uses is fully accessible for them. Theoretically all the platforms should subscribe to section 508 of the rehabilitation act and be perfectly accessible, but many of them are not there yet.”

Students with disabilities should investigate the following when evaluating an online program:

  • To what extent does the school value diversity in general? The answer will give students an indication of how far the school might be willing to go to minimize barriers.
  • Does the school have an accessibility statement for the online learning program?
  • Is the website where the online course is presented and advertised accessible?
  • What is the learning management system and is it accessible for the student’s disability?
  • Does the program incorporate Universal Design principles?
  • Is the institution one of more than 700 that employ the Quality Matters best practices?
  • What is the course design process? Is there a standard, centralized process for ensuring accessibility or is up to the individual instructors?
  • What kinds of technologies, instructional material formats, and teaching methodologies are used to deliver the online courses, and are they accessible to a student’s specific disability?
  • What services does the school offer students with disabilities? Will these services allow the student to fully engage in the course and maximize the learning experience?
  • How do students work with the disability services office? Do they need to register to receive accommodations?
  • What accommodations are available?
  • How are instructors notified about a student’s needs and accommodations?
  • Is the faculty trained in regard to the needs of students with disabilities?
  • Are there any reviews from other students with disabilities who have taken the class or enrolled in the program?

A University of Florida questionnaire helps students assess whether online learning is a good option for them.

A comprehensive guide to online education, from getting started to graduation.

Maximizing the Online Learning Experience

Once a student with disabilities determines that online learning is a good option for him or her, there’s the added responsibility of having to advocate for themselves and request accommodations. Experts agree it’s important to work with the school’s office of disability services from the very start.

“As soon as you decide on your course schedule, think about what you might need in order to be successful and put those things in place early on. Need accommodations for testing? Ask early. Need alternative format books? Ask early. Don’t wait too long,” says Wesley Satterwhite, director of Disability Services as Western Carolina University. “Students do not have to go it alone. There are many resources and support for online students with disabilities, just as for students in seat-based classes.”

Students should also be aware that in an online course, unless they have specifically disclosed that they have a disability, it is hidden from the instructor. Also, an instructor may have never encountered a student with a student’s specific disability before. In such cases, students need to advocate for themselves and help the instructor understand their needs.

Another crucial key to online success for students with disabilities is learning to use any necessary technology before the course begins. “Students need to be prepared to use any new technology when classes start. It’s very difficult to learn to use the technology and take the class at the same time.” says Michelle McCandless, director of the Disability Services Program at the University of Denver.

Karen Pettus at University of South Carolina agrees and tell students, “Don’t wait until the day of the test to learn to use the technology. Many students operate in the ‘just in time’ mentality. They believe they are so busy that they don’t have time to learn to use a technology, like Dragon Dictate or speech to text technology. Then when they have a test or paper due and they need to use the software, they try to learn to use the technology while taking the test or completing their final. They get so frustrated and don’t do well on the assignment.”

Experts offer the following additional tips to help students with disabilities be successful at online learning:

  • Every school has a disability office. Register with them early, before the semester begins.
  • Know what support is available through the school’s disability office.
  • Research assistive technology solutions that may help improve your online learning experience. The school’s disability services office can help.
  • Ask for the course syllabus in advance. This enables students to plan ahead for any assistive technology they might need.
  • Let instructors know in advance when accommodations are needed.
  • Always request accommodations regardless if you think you will utilize them or not; once a class begins, it’s easier to access accommodations if they’ve been established.
  • Obtain written confirmation (emails are fine) from professors and administrators regarding any accommodations they’ve agreed to offer.
  • Maintain contact with the professor and advisor throughout the duration of the class.
  • Let the professor and the disabilities office know right away if you are struggling with any part of the course.
  • Take advantage of the training materials provided by assistive technology vendors to make sure you know how to take full advantage of the tools.
  • Know who to contact if a course feature/tool/content is not accessible.
  • Don’t take too many online courses at one time. Start slow and see how it goes.

Everything a student with disabilities needs to know for making the transition from high school to college.

The website includes a section on adults with learning disabilities designed to help them learn to advocate for themselves and make smart decisions about education after high school, finding a job, and dealing with everyday life.

University of Washington’s DO-IT program provides information about resources and events that help student prepare for and be successful in postsecondary education and challenging career opportunities.