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How online education can benefit students with disabilities

The number of students with disabilities attending college is growing, and so are the share of schools accommodating them. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Education, 88 percent of colleges currently enroll students with a wide range of disabilities, including learning, physical, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities. Today, colleges can make a number of accommodations for these students in the classroom, like extended testing periods, instructor-provided notes, and adaptive equipment and technology. But what about online colleges? What types of accommodations do they afford this demographic, and are they effective? The short answer: Many, but their effectiveness depends very much on the student.

Benefits for a wide range of disabilities

Students with disabilities can face a number of challenges in college, and without the right support, some may seem insurmountable. According to a 2014 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, about 41 percent of students with learning disabilities complete college, compared to 52 percent of the general population. One way schools and organizations can bolster these numbers is to expand online education. Dr. Chester Goad, a university administrator who works directly with students with disabilities, former congressional staffer, and former president of the Tennessee Association on Higher Education Disabilities, sees a number of ways online learning can help these students succeed, though how much depends largely on the disability in question.

"Students who have certain physical, chronic, mobility issues can certainly benefit from the convenience of taking courses online, but for some other disabilities, like vision or hearing issues, accessibility can be more challenging," says Goad, who also recently co-authored Tennessee's successful "Dyslexia is Real" bill. "Higher Ed institutions are jumping on board and the technology is getting better and better, but often the problem lies with the publishers or creators of texts, and online platforms."

The following are just a few examples of the ways students with disabilities can benefit from logging on, rather than reporting, to class:

  • Learning disabilities. One of the primary benefits of online education for students with learning disabilities is the ability to work at their own pace, reviewing materials and video lectures as needed. For students with certain types of disabilities, like dyslexia and visual processing disorder, the ability to manipulate digital texts -- by, say, changing the font style or size -- can help them process and retain written information more effectively than they would viewing PowerPoint presentations in class or reading through traditional textbooks. Dyslexia Consultants Editor Russell Van Brocklen, who also works with the Disability Resource Center at the University at Albany, State University of New York, notes that forums and other online tools can also help some students better organize their thoughts and materials.
  • Physical disabilities. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of online education for physically disabled students is its accessibility. Students need not report to a campus or rush between classes when the classroom is always as close as the nearest Internet connection. Students whose disabilities make it difficult or impossible to type can usually integrate other adaptive technologies, such as voice-to-text and voice-activated programs.
  • Visual impairments. As with students with physical disabilities, students with visual impairments may find it easier to log on to a computer to report to class than to make the trip campus. These students can also use adaptive technologies that make online learning easier, like audio recordings, voice-to-text software and even braille keyboards.
  • Hearing impairments. People with hearing impairments often use a number of technological accommodations that make life easier, many of which fit nicely with the online learning platform. They might, for instance, view video lectures with subtitles -- something that cannot be replicated in the classroom. In online education, text is the primary mode of day-to-day communication with instructors and peers, which means students with hearing impairments can collaborate with their fellow classmates in forums and via email, no signing required.
  • Psychiatric disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 15 percent of colleges cater to students with psychiatric disabilities. How online learning can benefit these students varies tremendously from one condition to the next. Some students, particularly those with severe anxiety, may feel more comfortable working in the comfort of their own home rather than in a large classroom setting. Others can appreciate the freedom to tend to school work whenever they feel up to it, and around therapy or other appointments.

It is important to note that many online schools also afford students with disabilities many of the same accommodations they would have in the classroom, including extended tests and assignment deadlines, additional instructor support by phone or email, and expanded assignment guidelines.

Common challenges (And how to address them)

We have discussed many of the ways online degree programs can benefit students with disabilities, but as Empire State College, State University of New York emphasizes on its website, online education can present its own challenges now and again. Among them:

  • Course management systems that are incompatible with students' assistive technology
  • Less immediate feedback when students need help or have questions
  • Difficulties navigating and processing online media, depending on the disability
  • Little or slow adoption of disability-friendly accommodations, like closed captioned video lectures, due to budget restraints or lack of institutional awareness

Often students can identify and address potential issues by test-driving course management programs before beginning a course. Most schools also staff technical and other support personnel who can counsel students on how to best use and adapt web technologies by phone, email or live chat.

"Students should communicate their concerns," says Goad. "Ask up front whether the programs and technology the online courses are using are accessible."

Goad also encourages students who feel their needs are not being met to speak up. He says that while it may seem easier to opt-out and find a program with more accessible technology than to wait for an existing program to be retrofitted, schools will not get the memo if they are not informed. The same can be said of schools who do not demand technologies that better meet their students' needs.

"It's a supply and demand issue though. Students and institutions should start demanding accessible formats, platforms, and technology," adds Goad. "One way they can do that is by instituting procurement policies. In other words, we won't purchase this format, text, or platform unless it's fully accessible."

Choosing an online degree program

All students, with and without disabilities, can benefit from choosing an online degree program that suits their life and learning styles, but those with disabilities need to consider other factors, too. Perhaps the biggest, says Van Brocklen, is the level of support, "both technical and from the instructors themselves."

"It has been my experience that some dyslexics are computer geniuses, and computer difficulties which might concern the general population are of little to no concern for them," says Van Brocklen, who has severe dyslexia himself. "However, there is also a significant portion of the dyslexic population where, quite frankly, we find technological problems to be a major obstacle."

Van Brocklen emphasizes the importance of also having plenty of access to instructors. He recalls how important professors' office hours were to him as a student.

"It was these hours of conversation where I learned the most from any given course," he adds.

Like many, Van Brocklen wants to be certain students still have an opportunity to connect with teachers in other ways while attending online courses. Luckily, many online degree programs now offer students the ability to chat with instructors and classmates through a variety of formats, including email, discussion boards, instant message, video conference, and phone.


Sources:
"Accommodations for Online Courses," Empire State College, State University of New York, http://www.esc.edu/disability-services/student-handbook/accommodations-overview/online-courses/
"Colleges respond to growing ranks of learning disabled," Hechinger Report, February 13, 2014, Matt Krupnick, http://hechingerreport.org/content/colleges-respond-to-growing-ranks-of-learning-disabled_14704/
Interview with Dr. Chester Goad, July 30, 2014
"The State of Learning Disabilities," National Center for Learning Disabilities, Candace Cortiella, 2014, http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/what-is-ld/state-of-learning-disabilities
"Students with Disabilities at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions," Institute of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, June, 2011, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011018.pdf