Physical Disabilities and Online College

| Bobby Rich

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If you have a physical disability, the challenges of going to college are often multiplied and magnified. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 give schools the legal obligation to ensure equality for students who are disabled through accessibility and accommodation.

Online college makes education more accessible for people with physical disabilities. You can earn a full degree from the comfort of your own home on a flexible schedule. This can be especially useful if you have mobility and travel issues, or a busy and unpredictable schedules due to medical treatment or therapy. As an online student, you enjoy a “home base advantage” that allows you to stay close to your families, friends, support groups, doctors, and treatment specialists, and avoid having to worry about navigating campus.

Depending on the nature of your disability, operating a computer can be difficult. Fortunately, with colleges providing accommodations, and with numerous groups and companies providing accessibility solutions, online college can be a viable option for all students. This article identifies some of the leading accommodations and assistive technologies for people with physical disabilities navigating the online college experience.

In addition to the resources identified below, there are quite a few advocacy groups — both general and disability-specific — that can help you get the support you need in online college. To learn more, check out our page on Learning Accommodation Resources and Advocacy Groups.

Want to know more about how disability legislation can impact your student experience? Click here to learn more about Key Legislation Impacting Students with Disabilities.


Thanks to the ADA and Section 504, disability accommodations have become more and more commonplace, especially when it comes to institutions of higher education. Accommodations such as handicapped parking, ramp entrances, and elevators or wheelchair lifts, as well as accessible housing, are generally widespread and available. If you’re an online student and not attending school on campus, however, those accommodations may not mean much to you apart from the occasional visit. Nevertheless, colleges and universities provide accommodations for online students in other forms.

1. Disability resource center

When it comes to getting the accommodations you need, a school’s disability resource center should be your first stop. The disability resource center is where you can identify your disability for school personnel and let the school know that you need accommodations. Disability counselors work with you to meet your specific needs, help you get connected with other groups and services on campus, and advocate for your needs and rights. Counselors can also help you seek out and apply for scholarships and funding to aid in your education, or in acquiring assistive technology. Some schools, but not all, offer some assistive technology, which may be provided directly in the resource center. Finally, if you have a grievance concerning discriminatory treatment, the disability resource center is the first place to report the issue.

2. Additional Time

A common accommodation that applies equally to online and on-campus students is that of additional time. For a variety of reasons, the standard time limits on essays and exams can place undue stress on students with disabilities. Especially if you have difficulty operating a standard keyboard or mouse and need to rely on assistive technology, completing an exam in an hour, for example, can be difficult, if not impossible. With a documented request from the campus disability resource center, many professors are happy to accommodate students with extra time as needed.

3. Online library services

Though not strictly “disability accommodations,” online library services are extremely useful to everyone, and for disabled students in particular. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of these resources. Conducting research can be tricky, but consultation with a research librarian can help. Here, you can discuss your project, be guided to useful databases, and gain instruction in using search techniques and filters. Moreover, most libraries provide digital document delivery, which means that any document that you need (and which is available in the catalog) can be scanned and delivered to you as a PDF. If you have difficulty handling books or turning pages, a PDF file (combined with assistive technology) can make researching and learning a much smoother task. Contact your school’s library for more details.

4. Online tutoring services

Tutoring services are also useful and available to everyone, but may fly under the radar as a category of physical learning accommodation. This is especially useful if you have physical limitations or health-related scheduling demands that cause you to occasionally miss live lectures or class discussions. A tutor can help you fill in the gaps. Tutors come in a variety of forms, and are available in every subject. Moreover, many colleges (especially those that have a high number of online programs) offer online tutoring services through chat or live-video platforms. If you feel like you need any kind of help wrapping your head around a subject, don’t hesitate to contact a tutor. Of particular value are online writing centers, in which writing tutors work one-on-one with you at all stages of the writing process. You can’t get through college without writing papers, but you don’t need to do it alone. Especially if you need extended time, utilizing the writing center’s services can help mitigate any complications and ensure a high grade.

Assistive Technology

Online college offers numerous benefits to students with physical disabilities over traditional on-campus programs. However, it comes with its own hurdles too, specifically in regards to technological interfaces. Mainstream consumer technology is typically not designed with disabled people in mind, which in turn can make it difficult for disabled students to utilize. If you have issues with fine motor skills, using a standard keyboard to type out a paper can be a burdensome experience. Fortunately there is plenty of specialized assistive technology available today that allows individuals with any type or degree of disability to interact with and utilize technology to meet their needs. All of the assistive devices below fall under the category of “alternative input hardware.” Enable Martprovides a complete selection of all of these devices.

1. Ability switches

Ability switches come in many forms, and can be adapted to meet just about any need. The operating concept here is that an ability switch is programmed to make certain functions — such as typing, scrolling, or moving a mouse — simpler or even just possible for those with limited mobility. This can include switches that can be activated with minor finger movements, mechanical switches that offer a distinctive “click,” and large single button switches that can be pressed with the head or chin. This also includes more complex devices for those with extremely limited movement control, such as sip and puff devices, and switches that operate on minor muscle movement in the cheeks. No matter your limitations, there is a device for you. Spectronics offers a full catalogue of ability switches.

2. Eye tracking technology

Perhaps the most advanced assistive technology on this list, eye tracking technology is most useful for those with extremely limited movement. The technology uses a combination of special cameras and software to follow the movement of the user’s eyes, allowing computer operation, file or application selection and program usage, with as little movement as possible. It is, however, often quite expensive.

3. Head wands and mouth sticks

The simplest form of assistive technology on this list, head wands and mouth sticks allow the user to type or interact with a touch screen through head movements. For those with limited fine motor control, these tools can provide a simple, direct method of computer operation. As the user, you’ll move your head and neck to manipulate a stick or wand, which allows you to strike keys or press on-screen buttons. However, these devices make for slow computing, and when used for a long period of time can become physically exhausting.

4. Keyboard alternatives

Technically, just about every item on this list is a keyboard alternative. However, this category focuses on adaptive keyboards in particular, rather than software solutions or ability switches. For those who have difficulty accurately hitting the keys on a conventional keyboard, adaptive keyboards provide a straightforward solution. Instead of having raised keys (as is standard), adaptive keyboards have recessed keys, making it much easier to strike the key you meant to strike, without also accidentally hitting the keys surrounding it. For those who anticipate doing a lot of typing, this is an invaluable tool that saves loads of time by preventing errors. Some adaptive keyboards even come with predictive text software.

5. Mouse alternatives

Operating a mouse can prove to be another difficult task for those with limited fine motor skills. Track pads and joysticks provide viable solutions to this quandary, allowing the user to navigate their computer in a way that accommodates broader movements and a loose grip. If you find using a standard mouse to be frustrating or prohibitive to operating a computer, this alternative technology can provide an easy solution to your trouble. For those with greater mobility limitations, you may instead want to consider ability switches, eye tracking technology, or speech recognition software.

6. Page flipping tools

Tablets provide students with a more intuitive interface for operating software. However, some motions that tablets require, such as swiping, are not easy for everybody. Just as traditional college requires lots of textbooks, online college requires lots of e-books, and if you have trouble swiping on the screen, turning the “pages” can be difficult. Page flipping tools — such as those made by PageFlip — hook up to your device and simplify the task by allowing you to turn a page with the press of a large switch. Coupled with digital document delivery, page flipping tools can make anything accessible to read.

7. Predictive text software

Another alternative to the standard keyboard is predictive text software. If you have a smartphone, you likely already have some exposure to this type of software, although what we are talking about here is for your computer. Predictive text software can make the task of writing a document much easier by using algorithms to predict a selection of upcoming possible words based on what you have written so far. Coupled with speech recognition capabilities, this can eliminate many of the physical strains and barriers of writing through conventional means. One of the most popular products in this category is Co:Writer

8. Speech recognition software

More technologically complex than simple mouse and keyboard alternatives, speech recognition software allows you to fully operate a computer without using your hands. By relying on vocal cues (which you can customize as needed) speech recognition software allows you to type and navigate your desktop, programs, and the Internet. This is useful for anyone who has trouble operating a standard keyboard or mouse, whether this is due to a disability, or simply from tendinitis pain or arthritis. One of the most popular products in this category is Dragon NaturallySpeaking

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