Learning Disabilities and Online College
Updated June 11, 2021
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Students with learning disabilities can receive various accommodations, services, and assistive technologies to aid with their online studies.
Students with learning disabilities face unique challenges that can impact their academic success. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 18.1% of students with learning disabilities drop out — a rate nearly three times the 6.5% dropout level for all students.
Specialized resources can help students with a learning disability succeed without isolating them from their peers. Among K-12 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), 7 in 10 spend 80% of their time in general education classrooms. This trend toward positive classroom inclusion for students with learning disabilities extends to traditional and online college programs.
Read on to learn how online colleges support students with learning disabilities and how to access this support.
Common Learning Disabilities for College Students
Learning disabilities create specific deficits in learners who otherwise thrive in academic settings, making some aspects of college life more challenging.
For instance, a student with dyslexia may understand course content intellectually, but struggle to spell or organize words. Similarly, someone with oral/written language disorder may recognize individual words perfectly, but have difficulty processing a paragraph.
Because learning disabilities create deficits, they can slow students down, making it difficult for them to maintain the same pace as their peers. This can erode a learner's confidence over time and increase the likelihood that students with learning disabilities will not complete their degrees. Fortunately, access to help can address these deficits and put degree-seekers on the path to success.
Online College for Students With Learning Disabilities
Online learning can occur in an asynchronous learning environment, where enrollees receive abundant time to process course materials at their own pace.
Because online learning takes place on a computer, students can augment course materials with assistive software in real time and on the same screen.
Online learning takes place in the comfort of one's home, which relieves stresses related to commuting. People with learning disabilities sometimes experience issues with executive function — such as making in-person meetings on time — and sensory overload, which can both be mitigated online.
Most online courses are heavily text-based, as opposed to the lectures and verbal conversations that characterize in-person courses. This can present significant challenges for people who live with reading-comprehension- or text-based learning disabilities, like dyslexia.
The visual layout of an online course can sometimes include distracting or confusing graphics or text elements, which can cause problems for learners with deficits in processing words or visual information.
Large online courses can feel impersonal. With limited one-on-one interaction with the instructor, students may find it hard to connect with course material and stay focused.
Finding The Right Online Program
Students should directly ask their prospective schools about the resources they offer for individuals with learning disabilities. Assertive self-advocacy goes a long way.
A strong online program for students with learning disabilities will offer free access to assistive software, online tutoring, and similar resources, through either student services centers or disability services departments. You may want to check out as Landmark College, a private school founded exclusively for students with learning disabilities, attention disorders, and autism. Even if you don't choose to enroll, you'll get a better sense of what accommodations to request at other institutions.
When shopping for an online program that meets your needs, you should carefully consider factors that affect your learning experience.
- Delivery Format: Self-paced, asynchronously formatted online learning is often the best choice for students with learning disabilities because it allows them to engage with materials at their own pace.
- Access to Assistive Software: Ask your instructors about assistive software that can address any challenges with course delivery format for your learning disability. For example, you can request text-to-voice software for reading-intensive courses or transcripts for lecture-intensive programs.
- Class Size: In overly large online courses, you may find it difficult to receive the one-on-one attention you need from your professor.
Online colleges' accommodations for students with learning disabilities can include assistive software, extended deadlines, and tutoring support. Assistive technology in particular has made significant strides in augmenting students' learning experiences.
Here, we provide an overview of common support resources for learning disabilities that you can expect from online colleges.
Disability Resource Center
When it comes to accessing accommodations, it's best to start with your school's disability resource center. Here, you can work with disability counselors to understand your learning disability and determine what accommodations you'll need. Disability counselors can provide resources, connect you with other groups and services on campus, and help with advocacy.
Counselors can also help you find and apply for scholarships and funding to aid in your education or help you acquire assistive technology. Some schools provide assistive technology directly through their resource centers. Disability resource centers are also the best place to start if you need to report a grievance concerning discriminatory or exclusionary practices.
The standard time limits on essays and exams can place undue stress on students with disabilities -- especially learning or cognitive disabilities like ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia.
To overcome this extra challenge, both online and on-campus students with disabilities can petition the professor for an additional time accommodation. This usually requires a documented request from the campus disability resource center, and the amount of additional time granted varies by circumstance.
Online Library Services
Though they aren't strictly "disability accommodations," students living with disabilities often find online library services extremely useful, as they offer materials in a variety of formats and are accessible from home. Unfortunately, many learners are unaware of these resources.
The best first step in conducting research is to consult a research librarian. They can discuss your project with you, help you navigate useful databases, and instruct you in using search techniques and filters. Contact your school's library for more details.
Online Tutoring Services
Tutoring sometimes flies under the radar as a physical learning accommodation, but students find these services especially useful when learning disabilities make it difficult to keep up with the pace or instructional approach used in their courses. Tutors help adapt material and can fill in the gaps.
Tutors come in every subject, and many colleges -- especially those offering a lot of online programs -- provide online tutoring services through chat or live video platforms. Online writing centers are particularly helpful; there, writing tutors work one-on-one with you at all stages of the writing process, offering feedback and assistance.
If you need any kind of help wrapping your head around a subject, don't hesitate to contact a tutor.
While traditional college comes with a certain degree of in-person accountability and support, online college can be more hands-off, leaving you feeling adrift. Guidance from assistive technologies help fill that gap, especially if you have a learning disability that makes online study more challenging.
If you're in a four-year college program, you will have to take at least one math course. If you live with dyscalculia or ADHD, math courses can be intimidating. Fortunately, math assistance tools can help, whether you're taking one algebra course or pursuing a full-blown Ph.D. in mathematics.
Productivity and Organization Tools
Some students face challenges with organization and productivity, especially amid the distractions of smartphones, social media, and streaming services. Learners who have trouble creating effective plans and staying on task can use the following tools, some of which focus specifically on those living with ADHD.
College requires a significant amount of reading, which can include strange, new, or complicated terms. While some learners love reading, others may struggle. If you have difficulties with reading comprehension, deciphering pronunciation, or staying focused, consider the following tools.
Speech Recognition Software
Many students can benefit from speech recognition software — not just those living with disabilities. Having the option to dictate writing to your computer can make a huge difference for students who have trouble sitting still and focusing on a computer screen or reading text on a computer. Below are some useful speech-to-text software options.
Studying can be uniquely challenging for people with learning, developmental, and cognitive disabilities. The following tools can help you find a productive study method and establish a routine.
All college students must complete writing assignments. Use these tools to improve your skills and grow as a writer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Students With Learning Disabilities Succeed in College?
Students with learning disabilities should not be discouraged from pursuing degrees. Every year, thousands of degree-seekers with various learning disabilities graduate from college, made possible by the right resources and support services.
What Are the Main Types of Learning Disabilities?
There are five main types of specific learning disability:
- Dyscalculia: difficulty with mathematics
- Dysgraphia: difficulties with fine motor skills
- Dyslexia: difficulty with reading and spelling
- Non-verbal learning disabilities: difficulty understanding nonverbal cues
- Oral/written language disorder: difficulties with written and oral comprehension
Which Colleges Are Best for Students With Learning Disabilities?
When shopping for colleges that suit your needs, explore those with smaller classroom sizes and ample resources for students with disabilities. There are some colleges, like Beacon College, that focus exclusively on serving students with learning disabilities, so that's a great place to start your research and get a sense for what's possible.
Can You Do Online School With an IEP?
According to the law, IEPs do not carry over from high school into college, even for online degrees. Instead, colleges must provide accommodations for students with learning disabilities. However, accessing those accommodations for online college courses usually requires students to self-advocate.
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