The rapid growth of online college represents more than just innovation. It represents the opportunity for access. As traditional colleges expand their online college offerings, new opportunities are opening to an ever-widening population of students. Individuals with disabilities are finding new pathways to accredited colleges and universities, pathways that have the potential to cut through many of the obstacles presented by traditional education.
That doesn’t mean that online college is necessarily a perfect solution. In fact, while computer and web-mediated access to college presents exciting new opportunities for individuals with mobility challenges, learning disabilities, spectrum disorders, sensory impairments and mental health conditions, these opportunities are not always realized to their fullest.
At its very best, online college is enhancing the educational experience for underserved students and making higher education possible for new participants. Still, the online sector has a long way to go toward serving students with disabilities and standardizing the availability of certain learning accommodations. As you navigate the online college application, admission and enrollment processes, seek a school with the understanding and resources to deliver a quality educational experience that centers around your needs.
Whether you are an individual with a need for learning accommodations, or a family member, guardian or advocate for an individual with learning accommodation needs, these tips can help you make the most of your online college education:
1. Colleges are still catching up with the growing number of students with disability needs
This is true whether you’re attending college online or on-campus. According to The Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED) at the University of Connecticut, roughly 11% of all college students have some form of disability.
This amounts to approximately 200,000 college students with individualized needs, unique challenges and distinctive personal goals. As we become better equipped to diagnose subtle learning challenges like dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and Asperger’s, and as we create new legal and practical pathways for students with disabilities to participate in higher education, colleges are enrolling a growing number of students with learning accommodation needs.
While this represents a positive trend, there may be evidence that colleges aren’t fully prepared to handle these needs. According to the Hechinger Report, students with learning disabilities are significantly more likely than other students to drop out of a four-year degree program within eight years of high-school graduation. The National Center for Special Education Research also reports that roughly 34 percent of students with learning disabilities will graduate from college within six years, as compared to 56 percent of all students nationally.
Students with learning disabilities are more likely to require access to materials, personal assistance, and unique instructional strategies than other students. In cases where access, availability or awareness are lacking, students may either not have the opportunity or the know-how to make use of these critical resources. If you are planning on attending a college or university, or are an advocate to an individual with plans of enrollment, make sure that you understand the challenges ahead and choose a school with the means to help you overcome these challenges.
2. Online college presents unique challenges
For many students, the online experience represents a whole new set of educational possibilities. There’s no question that the accessibility, flexibility and convenience of an online education can create new opportunities for students with a wide range of disabilities. But there are also aspects of online college that can be difficult to navigate for any student. These difficulties may be magnified by specialized learning needs.
On one hand, online college is a great outlet for students working with mobility limitations, learning disabilities, psychological challenges, sensory impairment and a host of other learning obstacles. Online college transcends the boundaries of geography and time, creating access, individualizing the learning experience, and offering instructional strategies that are often readily compatible with assistive technology. The web-mediated experience can also provide educators with uniquely intuitive and data-driven strategies for instruction, evaluation and individual engagement.
On the other hand, online college remains in a state of evolution. While web technology is now ingrained in higher education, the strategies for its use are still in something of an experimental phase. We know that online education works, that it provides some advantages over traditional education, and that the medium presents unique challenges, many of which we are still learning how to manage.
But what we don’t know for sure is what methods work best, which practices are most likely to yield strong results for the widest cross-section of the student population, and how these practices can be deployed in ways that bring some consistency to online education. This presents a challenge that is especially acute for students with disabilities. As online colleges tinker with that which works and that which doesn’t, the nature and availability of learning accommodations lacks any kind of consistency.
Still, the best online schools reflect an awareness of the unique needs of each student, and offer access to meaningful personal support; alternative systems for accessing course lectures, materials and content; and policy flexibility as it relates to testing, course load, graduation requirements and other formal dimensions of your education.
If you are planning to attend an online college, make sure you choose a school that has a fully developed strategy for handling learning accommodations, and specifically those relating to your needs.
3. The law is on your side
Over the last 50 years, legislation has emerged and evolved in support of your right to a quality higher education, and your ability to access this education.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits any discrimination on the basis of disability in any context relating to the federal government. Section 504 of this law denotes that programs receiving federal funding — public and private four-year schools among them — may not discriminate in hiring or admission on the basis of disability.
Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975
Known today as the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA), this legislation would build on the terms of Section 504 to restrict discrimination and require certain accommodations in all public school settings for grades K-12. The six pillars of learning accommodation would include:
- Individualized Education Program (IEP)
- Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
- Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
- appropriate evaluation
- parent and teacher participation
- procedural safeguards
Though these pillars largely apply to primary and high-school education, they have provided a blueprint for colleges and universities working to understand and meet their own obligations to students with disabilities.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act was a broad and sweeping civil rights bill aimed at preventing discrimination and improving opportunities and access for all Americans with disabilities. The legislation added all private organizations, businesses and employers (with more than 15 employees) to the list of entities which must make “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities. This standard now applies to all colleges, universities and places of higher learning.
A few things to note about these laws:
- The ADA remains in a state of evolution. Since its inception, legislation has added a growing number of qualifiers for consideration as disabled, including mental illness and non-permanent disabilities.
- In order to leverage either the benefits and accommodations of the ADA, or to make a case of discrimination, allege institutional failure to make “reasonable accommodation,” or register a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), you must have verifiable documentation of your disability from a medical or mental health professional.
- Make note that the concept of “reasonable accommodation” is fairly flexible and not explicitly defined. This gives colleges and universities an especially wide latitude in making accommodations, which in turn means that it can be particularly difficult to either prove discrimination or assert the legal right to certain learning accommodations.
That said, reasonable accommodations generally imply:
- Physical modifications including ramps, curbs, and rails
- Learning assistance including readers, electronic transcriptions, and assistive technology for visually or hearing impaired individuals
- Additional time for completion of exams, courses, and degree programs
- Flexibility regarding completion of non-essential courses
- Audio recording of course lessons and lectures
- Modifications to testing materials to remove factors discriminating access or evaluation of students with disabilities
If you are experiencing discrimination or are not receiving the learning accommodations to which you are legally entitled, you should file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). (It does bear noting that the OCR has been the victim of significant budget and staffing cuts since the beginning of the Betsy DeVos tenure at the Department of Education, which has had a negative impact on its operational capacity and reliability as an advocate.)
4. Online colleges don’t have universal standards… yet
While every college or university is required by law to provide learning accommodations, the availability and effectiveness of these accommodations can vary significantly. The result is an equally high variant of outcomes for students with disabilities.
This is especially true of the online college experience, where the lack of consistency surrounding “reasonable accommodations” is only magnified by the state of experimentation and evolution surrounding computer-mediated learning. Online colleges enjoy relative autonomy in deciding how and to what extent each will serve students with disabilities.
At the same time, online colleges could actually be the perfect frontier for the implementation of more comprehensive and consistent rules surrounding the meaning of “reasonable accommodation.”
Vickie S. Cook at the Center for Online Learning, Research Service at the University of Illinois — Springfield suggests that in an ideal world, all online colleges would work toward a standard called universal design. This suggests an approach in which course materials are made accessible in a variety of different ways. For individuals with conditions like visual or hearing impairment, it is especially important to know that you can access course materials without disadvantage.
While we haven’t achieved this standard yet, online college may present itself as an area uniquely pliable by legislation. As we continue to grapple with questions of how best to leverage online college — as well as how best to control and stifle the proliferation of shady for-profit schools — a universal design standard may have a better chance to see the light of day in the online sector than in the traditional campus setting.
5. Do your research on learning management systems
You must choose an online experience that offers the specific learning accommodations you’ll need to enjoy an experience equal to that of your classmates. Without a universal design standard, every online program uses its own learning management system. A learning management system is essentially the platform on which you’ll be doing almost everything in your online classes, from accessing course materials and attending virtual lectures to communicating with classmates, visiting professor office hours, and submitting assignments.
In other words, your ability to access and use a learning management system is absolutely critical to your ability to participate, let alone succeed in, your online courses. Differences in the way each learning management system delivers content can be deeply consequential to your experience. For instance, “Graphics or visual media may not be accessible to students who are visually impaired, whereas text-heavy environments are challenging for students with reading disabilities and other types of LD or AD/HD.”
Before you start sending out applications, find out what kind of learning management systems are most amenable to your needs, then find schools that employ the systems that work best for you. While some schools use their own internally developed systems, most use well-known third-party providers. According to U.S. News & World Report, Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn are a few of the most popular.
Check them out and see who does the best job of accommodating your needs. This is a great way to narrow down your college choices.
6. Seek a supportive learning environment
Of course, the learning management system isn’t everything. You’ll also want to find a school with an inclusive culture, a well-resourced disability center, and a structure that doesn’t financially penalize students for their disability needs.
Indeed, while every college is required by federal law to maintain a disability center, not all have been created, staffed or even priced equally. Some schools may actually charge a higher rate in tuition or fees to students who will need to make use of certain accommodations. Find out everything you can about the resources, support and costs associated with learning accommodations at the schools on your list.
This process should include making either a face-to-face or online appointment with each school’s disability center and if possible, taking steps like talking to current or former students with disabilities for a better understanding of the experience you’re likely to have.
7. Communicate your disability and needs with instructors
Online education may create opportunities for greater flexibility and accessibility. But it can also be a more impersonal experience, one in which you are less likely to build familiar relationships with your instructors. This can be a challenge if you are managing an “invisible disability.” The Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED) at the University of Connecticut notes that some learning disabilities can go unnoticed by educators, especially in the online context.
As an online student, you may also be less likely to disclose conditions like ADHD, brain injury, or mental health needs. This means that you won’t likely receive the outreach, support, accommodations or guidance you need to manage your disabilities.
In fact, the CPED reports that a recent survey of online instructors found that 80% had not adequately considered the needs of students' disabilities. One part of this problem is a lack of awareness. If you have need for learning accommodations due to physical, sensory, learning, psychological, spectrum or other disability, it is important that either you or an advocate make your challenges and needs known to your instructors.
You are under no legal obligation to disclose your disabilities to anybody, but making your challenges and needs known is essential if you are to learn about, access and make the most of critical learning accommodations.
8. Take advantage of support resources, networks and communities
According to the Hechinger Report “while 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities get some kind of help, just 17 percent of learning-disabled college students do.”
For individuals with learning disabilities or mental health challenges, this may reflect the perceived social stigma of seeking help. For others, this silence may a desire to exhibit the independence implied by the college experience. Others still may simply not realize that there are resources to be accessed.
However, the high rate of non-completion for students with disabilities underscores just how important it is to seek and access the proper support. Support may include access to assistive technology, human support services, or even just basic academic guidance. Make sure that you are making proper use of your school’s disability center and your academic support network.
You can also gain support by reaching out to advocacy groups like:
- American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)
- ADA National Network
- Learning Disabilities Association of America
- Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM)
- National Center for College Students With Disabilities (NCCSD)
9. Advocate for yourself
The law is on your side and there are lots of organizations out there who are willing to help. But ultimately, as a student with disabilities, or the representative of a student with disabilities, you must be your own strongest advocate. While the freedom and independence of the online college experience is one of its most powerful draws, it can also present a real challenge to students managing all kinds of disabilities.
Without the proper disclosure, open communication, and utilization of support resources, it’s especially easy for students with physical challenges, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, spectrum disorders, or sensory impairment to feel isolated, off-pace or out of place. Make an effort to be a part of the class and community by identifying and confronting obstacles to equal access.
Let your professors, academic advisor or support personnel know if you are experiencing challenges accessing class materials, following lectures, understanding critical course material, engaging in course discussions, or otherwise falling behind as a consequence of incompatibility between your disability and the available accommodations. In some cases, only you know how much your disabilities are impacting your learning experience. Make sure you let others know, and that you work with the proper personnel to create solutions that work.
College will be a test of independence, your capacity to work with others, and your willingness to lead. These are, it bears noting, also critical skills for your future career, whatever it may be. Put these skills to work now by calling on your college or university to provide all the accommodations you’ll need to succeed.
And if you’re an aspiring educator with the patience, compassion and ambition to help individuals with disabilities, consider a degree program in special education or early childhood development. Start with a few of the best online programs in each of these areas:
- Online Bachelor’s in Special Education
- Online Master’s in Special Education
- Online Doctorate in Special Education
- Online Master’s in Early Childhood Education
Visit our Disability Guides to check out a ton of other valuable resources for students with disabilities as well as family members, educators, advocates.