Online Education and Students with Disabilities

Online Education and Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities represent a significant percentage of the overall student population and in fact, recent statistics indicate that there are approximately 400,000 students in post-secondary education with a disability. There isn’t a distinction made for the type of degree program; however, online schools have helped to expand the accessibility of degree programs to many persons with disabilities because they are not required to travel to a physical location. However, not all students with disabilities will find an online school right for them. In addition, what laws protect students with disabilities and what is the online experience like for those who try it? Let’s look further.

Categories of disabilities

The general guideline for receiving a disability qualification is that a disability must “substantially limit” the person’s daily activities in some manner. Here are the general categories:

1. Physical disabilities which include “orthopedic, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders.” Many students in this category now have another option to attend class, in an environment that may be more comfortable for them. Some of these students may still require accommodations, depending upon the extent of their disability, and assistive technologies often address many of these needs.

2. Psychological disabilities, which includes mental illness, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Often this type of disability will have an impact on the student’s ability to perceive, understand, or comprehend information they are processing. Only the student and their health professional can assess the classroom environment and the ability of the student to function successfully in this type of setting. For example, there is a high level of student interactions required for class discussions and that requires cognitive processing skills – which may be difficult for students with this disability.

In my experience as an online instructor, students may choose not to seek assistance from the school because they do not want an additional label, they may not be unaware of school procedures regarding persons with disabilities, or they are already working with a health professional and attempting to perform their best in class. There isn’t a particular plan of action for a psychological disability; however, the school will make reasonable accommodations.

3. Learning disabilities (LD), which represent the highest percentage of students with disabilities (estimated at 45%). The LD category is often referred to as an invisible disability because there is no outward manifestation. Included in this category are students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The most common indicators I’ve seen for learning–disabled students includes weaknesses in the areas of reading, writing, and reasoning skills.

The challenge for instructors is that they cannot ask a student if they have a disability (of any category) and those instructors who are unfamiliar with the specifics of these disabilities may view the student as being uncooperative, unresponsive, or combative – when in fact the student may be struggling in their attempt to participate in a fast-pace online learning environment.

Regulations that Guide Students and Schools

If you are a person with a disability you need to know the regulations that guide the schools. There are no specific guidelines in place that dictate the exact nature of how online schools should make their classes accessible for students with disabilities. However, laws are in place that provide consideration for students with disability and the accommodations should be allowed.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first law that specifically put into place a requirement that schools must provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. The Department of Education has further clarified that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does apply to online schools. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Actprohibits discrimination based on a disability in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance,“ and includes postsecondary schools.

Section 504 also defines the services that must be provided when a request for assistance is made by a student with a disability. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is often referred to within disability articles; however, it applies only to employment settings within the federal government and does not have a direct impact on post-secondary schools.

The third important regulation concerning persons with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which provides “civil rights for individuals with disabilities.“ This provides guidance for students as well as their school. According to the ADA, students must make a self-disclosure to the school and a request for accommodations, and then they are further required to provide current documentation. When a self-disclosure is made (typically to the school’s Disability Services Department), the school is required to disclose the services that are available.

The Online Experience for Students with Disabilities

At most online schools, when a request has been made and subsequently approved, students typically receive additional time to complete their assignments. Some schools will offer voice recognition or speech to text software, depending upon the exact nature of the disability. There are no exact guidelines that schools must follow, and online schools typically do not publically list what options are available until a request is made by a student and then the disclosure is made on an individual basis.

Because there are no specific guidelines for online schools and how classes are required to be developed, schools are being encouraged to consider accessibility as part of the course design process. In a recent survey of online instructors, the following was determined:

80% did not consider the needs of students with disabilities, and 12% only partially consider the needs of students with disabilities when designing online courses.

As a means of addressing the needs of students with disabilities, schools have been following a Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which presents strategies that can be used when developing curriculum so that barriers to learning are minimized. This includes offering alternative forms of course assessments and delivery of course materials.

A definition of assistive technology devices is best summarized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (a law addressing children not adults) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (29 United States Code § 3002(a)(3), 2000).

The purpose of assistive technologies is to improve access to learning and increase functionality. The most common forms of devices utilized by online students include alternative keyboards, text-to-speech software, and screen magnifiers. Keep in mind that the use of assistive technologies is only meant to improve the physical aspect of working in an online classroom. Students who work in an online learning environment are still required to interact with information and other students in an effective manner.

Benefits of Online Learning for Disabled Students

The nature of online classes opens doors to students with disabilities. Students have the flexibility of working online in a location convenient for them, listening to downloadable audio files or podcasts, participating in asynchronous discussions, and viewing e-textbooks. As technology continues to evolve, the accessibility of education for students with disabilities will continue to grow. For example, voice recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speakingâ„¢ allows the user to speak into a microphone and have their words typed into a document. However, not all students will find this style of learning suitable for their disability, especially if their disability involves an impairment of their cognitive functioning skills.

Online schools have the benefit of adapting and responding to technological advancements much quicker than traditional colleges or universities because of their reliance on technology to deliver the programs, which means they must be responsive to changes. It is possible for many persons with disabilities to find this is a suitable alternative to the traditional classroom because there are more options available to successfully work in this environment. With an online school you are likely to find fewer barriers and more opportunities for learning.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Sean Justice/Corbis

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