Online colleges and online degree programs provide a unique set of benefits and accommodations for students with disabilities. As the technology and educational innovation develop around online education, colleges and universities are finding new ways to improve access and opportunity for students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health challenges, hearing or vision impairment, autism spectrum conditions, and a host of other educational hurdles.
Advocacy groups and support resources are available for students with all types of disabilities, both general and specific. To learn more, check out Learning Accommodation Resources and Advocacy Groups
Or read on to learn about current developments and innovation in learning accommodations for online students.
Learning Accommodations & the Law
After its 2008 amendment, the ADA defines disability broadly in section 12102 as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”
It is important to note that alongside physical disabilities and learning disabilities, this definition includes mental illness, a category that is often overlooked in society as being a form of disability. It is also important to note that these conditions do not have to be ongoing or permanent, and that the law applies if an individual is considered to have a disability, or has been treated as though they have a disability, even if the result is not a technical physical disability, such as in the case of physical disfigurement. For more on how disability legislation can impact your student experience, check out Key Legislation Impacting Students with Disabilities.
What Is Considered a Reasonable Accommodation?
“Reasonable accommodation” basically means any accommodation that allows students to fully display their knowledge and skill in a subject without providing unfair advantage or fundamentally altering the course in some way. For example, additional time for exams is a commonly applied accommodation for individuals with disabilities that may require more time to complete exams. This accommodation may apply to students with learning disabilities or students who rely on assistive technology to complete work. It is noteworthy that the concept of “reasonable accommodation” does leave room for some debate. Some schools and professors may employ much narrower definitions of “reasonable accommodation.” Some institutions may refuse to provide certain accommodations altogether, which is more than likely discrimination and grounds for legal action under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
If you, or somebody for whom you advocate, has experienced this or any other form of discrimination based on disability, contact the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) through the Department of Education to file a grievance.
Online Learning Accommodations
1. Disability Resource Center
The school’s disability resource center should always be your first stop, whether attending a traditional on-campus program or an online degree program. The disability resource center will advocate for your needs and rights, and is your main access point for securing the accommodations you need, and in some cases, finding funding for assistive technology. Identifying your disability to your school is voluntary, but if you want accommodations to be made, you need to officially identify with the disability resource center.
2. Alternative Assignments
Not all assignment formats work for everybody. Depending on your specific needs, alternative assignments, or alternative completion options, might be a better test of your subject mastery. Fortunately, online college provides numerous options for alternative assignments. After a formal request through the disability resource center, your professors can work with you to revise assignment requirements to meet your needs fairly. This can include facilitating the use of assistive technology in completing assignments.
3. Assistive Technology
With the advent of smartphones, tablets, apps, and cloud computing, assistive technology is in something of a renaissance moment. The field is rife with innovations, some of which seem to have been lifted right from the set of a Star Trek episode. Online college has proven a great platform for these innovations, allowing each of us to pursue a truly personalized educational experience. Below, we highlight some of the most compelling advances in assistive technology:
4. Captioning & Transcription
While commonly applied as accommodations for students who are deaf or hearing impaired, captioned and transcribed materials can be useful for students with a wide range of disabilities or learning challenges. In accordance with the ADA, a school must provide academic materials in a way that is accessible for everybody. To accommodate this requirement, professors or departments will often create media such as video or audio recordings with captions, transcripts, or both. Your school may do this proactively, when creating the materials, or retroactively, upon request. Or, for materials that are not captioned or transcribed, there are plenty of programs and tools that can do the job for you. To learn more, check out our article on Hearing Impairment Accommodations and Online College.
5. Digital Productivity Management
Syncing deadlines, assignments, exams, and other important dates in your schedule can be time consuming, and leaves plenty of room for error. If you have trouble with time management and organization, this can be doubly stressful. However, if you are taking all of your courses online, there’s really no reason you should be doing this the old fashioned way. There are plenty of digital productivity management apps and programs available today that you can and should take advantage of to ensure that you’re getting things done on time. This can include syncing calendars across phones, emails accounts, and computers, as well as creating alerts and prompts to both prioritize and remember your obligations and responsibilities. To learn more, check out our article on Learning Disability Accommodations and Online College.
6. Electronic Texts, PDFs, and OCR
If your courses are virtual, it stands to reason that your course materials should be virtual too. Electronic texts are great for everybody because of the combination of ease of use, affordability, and the fact that they don’t take up any room in your backpack. PDFs in particular though are useful for students relying on assistive technology. Through the use of OCR software (optical character recognition), students can utilize PDFs with text-to-speech programs, making any text accessible, regardless of one’s personal needs. When combined with digital document delivery through the university library system, students can access virtually any text they need and have it read aloud to them through a text-to-speech program. To learn more, check out our article on Learning Disability Accommodations and Online College.
7. Online Support Groups & Communities
Your online college experience might be remote, but that doesn’t mean that you should feel like a hermit as your earn your degree. There are plenty of online support groups and communities that you can connect with to share your experiences, vent your frustrations, swap tips, and make new friends. Most colleges are home to a number of disabled student activity and advocacy groups that you can connect with online or in person. There are also national organizations that can help enhance your college experience, such as the National Center for College Students with Disabilities.To learn more, check out Learning Accommodation Resources and Advocacy Groups
8. Remote Access on Your Own Schedule
One of the biggest draws for students considering online college is flexibility. Courses and course materials can be accessed anywhere you have an Internet connection, at any time of day or night that works for you. If you are a student with a disability, your treatments, therapy, medical appointments, and unexpected onsets of debilitating symptoms can define your schedule. This can make a traditional, on-campus course schedule difficult to manage. Many online degree programs are designed around the premise of flexibility, using asynchronous models of instruction and assignment completion so that you can advance your education on a schedule and at a pace that makes sense for your.
The Best Online Colleges
If you’re a student with any form of disability, attending an online college and earning an online degree program can be a great way to manage practical and educational challenges. And the developments highlighted here above can significantly improve your experience as you work toward an online degree. First, however, you need to pick an online college that understands and is prepared to accommodate your needs. Don’t know where to begin? You can get started by checking out the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2019, or you can browse our rankings of the best schools to get some ideas.
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