Are you an online student with a disability? If not, then perhaps you know an online student with a disability or have interacted with that student in an online class? Or maybe you have simply wondered as an online student if adjustments to your online course could help you better access and engage with your course material and online peers. College students with disabilities have been getting much more attention recently as a population who has historically been misunderstood, stigmatized, and therefore underserved. As awareness has shifted around learning disabilities and necessary accommodations, it has become more and more clear that there have always been a lot of students with disabilities on campuses all over the country, which include a myriad of undiagnosed learning disabilities. Even Ivy League schools have Disability Resource Centers, because students with disabilities are enrolled at colleges of every caliber.
The National Center on Learning Disabilities is one of several organizations that are conducting up-to-date research on the topic of learning disabilities in higher education. They have determined that at least 1 in 5 college students have a diagnosed learning disability. Online Education for disabled students is often an excellent fit.
Below you will find 10 tips specific to studying online with a disability.
- Yes, Even Online Schools have Disability Resource Centers
Every online institution of higher learning is different, but one thing you can usually count on is that there will be a disability resource center available. Sometimes you might have to dig around to find this asset, unfortunately, but it is worth it. It might even look like a virtual collection of resources that aim to serve a similar purpose for students who study online. This is often the go-to place for students to communicate about their disability status and understand what accommodations are available to support their learning. This might also be where you can go to access services such as note taking assistance, alternative media to support coursework, and might even include access to a mentor to touch base with for academic and emotional support.
- Don’t assume that because your course is online it will be accessible. If you are unable to access your course materials (for example, you have a hearing impairment and the lecture videos don’t have captions) immediately report any problems to your professor or IT support so that problems can be dealt with swiftly.”
- Instructors cannot provide individual student accommodations unless they have received an accommodation letter from the disability services office at the university.By law, students have the right to choose to self-disclose their accommodation to an instructor teaching a course they are taking. It is always helpful, however, if students can share their accommodation letter with their instructor earlier, rather than later. It may take considerable time to handle accommodations like printed text conversion for blind users, and accommodation for needs like extended testing time cannot be provided retroactively after the student has already taken a quiz or exam.
- If you are a student who thinks you may have an accommodation need, contact your disability resources office. Many forms of cognitive disability may go undetected through primary school and even into college, while other accommodation needs may emerge or develop from a variety of conditions or life circumstances. Your disability resources office can arrange for specific testing to determine whether you have an accommodation need. It may be as simple as a distraction-free environment when taking tests, or the need for additional testing time on exams.
- Online Tutoring Services are Available: Use Them!
Not every online institution has this offering, but if you think it is something that might benefit you, look out for online tutoring opportunities. If you love the school, and they do not offer online tutoring, there are online tutoring services that you can seek out beyond the institution where you study. Tutoring, however, is often a great way to stay on track, and be held accountable to your studies when you are working with a learning disability. Many schools offer zoom tutoring sessions through their disability resource center that can support your unique learning style and needs. A tutor can also support you to find resources that you did not even know existed to support your educational needs.
- If you are participating in a live online session or web conference phone call, identify yourself.According to Jon Gunderson, Coordinator for the IT Accessible Information Technology Group, “80% of the disabilities served are invisible.” This is especially true in an online setting where you may not be able to see your peers.
- Utilize Assistive Technologies (AT)
Assistive Technologies (AT) are offerings designed for the success of students with disabilities and are also available for online learners.
Online course accommodations for students with disabilities are often the most crucial component to a successful academic career for students with any disability. The Disability Resource Center is a great place to start to learn what the institution has to offer in this regard. There are many apps that are free and can assist with learning and documentation. Assistive Technology can include any software, equipment/ technology that gives students the opportunity to have an education tailored to their needs.
This can include:
- Speech-to-text technology, which enables students to dictate an assignment, notes, or even an entire academic paper, and have it translated into a document.
- Recording software, which can allow for students to record and save lectures and group discussions to return back and review the course delivery.
- Electronic Worksheetsare helpful tools for students with dyslexia and other disabilities. They are helpful for completing and working through assignments that pose challenges.
- Phonetic Spelling Softwareis also useful for students with dyslexia who are disempowered by spelling challenges
- Talking Calculators
- Videos that are shown should have captioning, not just for the hearing impaired, but for everyone. According to Angela Anderson, Disability Specialist at the University of Illinois, “captioning in classes has been shown to increase comprehension for everyone in the course, not just for those with hearing impairments but also for students with learning disabilities, and for students where English is a Second Language.
- Pick a School with a Learning Management System That is Right for You
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) there is not one universal online learning platform or design standard. I have taught at three different universities and all of them used entirely different learning platforms, some more user friendly than others. I believe this aspect of online education is taken for granted and not heavily considered when applying to schools. However, most of your work, online discussions, and access to course materials will happen from this learning platform. Even your lectures will be found here, as well as office hours and student engagement. You want to ensure that what the institution has to offer works with your style of learning. Make the research about online learning platforms part of your journey to find the right school. The US News and World Report highlights the importance of finding an effective learning platform in this article. When studying online, many quizzes and tests will be administered through your learning platform as well. Because one of the most common learning accommodations is lengthened test taking times, these standards will be modified through the learning platform itself.
- Just because a book is electronic, doesn’t necessarily mean it is accessible.Many electronic texts are unfortunately not keyboard friendly or accessible and may be in a proprietary format that cannot be accessed by blind students or students with specific types of motor impairment.
Learning online gives students a lot more flexibility and in some cases allows for basic freedoms like being in an environment that fits their bodies comfortably, or allows them the space to take breaks when they need to. There are many things to keep in mind when studying online with a learning disability. It is good to think through everything if this journey belongs to you.